On the Cusp
Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that can name every vowel sound in the English language. The fact that the days are drawing out means that the damp cold of the English spring is slowly being replaced by the damp cold of the English summer and this in turn means that we stand upon the verge of blockbuster territory: cash-wise, slim pickings for actual writers of original film scripts, but at least comics companies and the creators of vintage TV shows are quids in. But before this, a small but perfectly formed exploitation movie...
Orgy of the Blood Parasites
The spirit of the classic 50s sci-fi B-movie lives on in James Gunn's Slither, although the flesh in which it is clad is, to put it mildly, somewhat contorted. Apparently Gunn has history with the notorious American indie company Troma, who were responsible for such unforgettable gems as the Toxic Avenger series and A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell and, indeed, one of their movies gets referenced here - but Slither is anything but cheap and cheerful trash. No, it's very well-put-together and darkly witty trash.
Set in the small town of Wheelsy, this is the story of everyday American folk who lead ordinary lives right up until the occasion of their usually premature and invariably disgustingly horrific deaths. The cause of all this is a meteorite which lands in the woods outside town and which carries within it an alien organism with a life-cycle so grotesque it makes HR Giger's famous creation look like prime family pet material by comparison. A voracious plague-parasite with a hive-mind spread throughout its victims, it wastes no time in infecting the first person it comes across - fairly objectionable local resident Grant Grant (Michael Rooker). Inevitably Grant's lovely and wholesome wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) soon starts wondering why her hubby is acting so oddly and what those funny marks on his body are. Meanwhile, the local store
is wondering why Grant's buying such vast quantities of raw meat and everyone in the neighbourhood is wondering why their pet dogs and cats are vanishing. It looks like being a particularly stressful week for the Wheelsy PD and their chief Bill Party (cult superstar Nathan Fillion) - who, conveniently enough, has had a bit of a thing for Starla since way back when.
Gunn looks very much like a big fan of early David Cronenberg movies and pretty much the entire body of work of George Romero and he's managed to come up with a story which allows him to filch the best bits of their work along with 50s sci-fi cliches. The first part of the film is modelled very much along I Married A Monster From Outer Space lines but, as it progresses and the spread of the organism accelerates (rapidly but plausibly), the plot changes from 'what's wrong with hubby' to 'there's a monster on the loose!' to 'there are hundreds of small but disgustingly phallic monsters on the loose!' to 'zombie apocalypse!' to, er... well, 'complete body-horror splatterfest meltdown', a subgenre
I've probably just made up. (There's also a brief gag where the soundtrack blatantly turns into the theme from Predator.)
To be fair, this film doesn't have the psychological rigour of Cronenberg, or the political sophistication of Romero's best movies, but it makes up for it with a refusal to simply copy the films it's referencing - it brings something new to every scenario, and isn't afraid to follow its ideas through to their logical conclusion.
There's a sense in which Slither looks like one of those movies the script for which was commissioned by a special effects/makeup company simply as a showcase for them to show exactly what they're capable of (the most famous example of this kind of thing being probably From Dusk Till Dawn). They certainly get the job done as the effects in this movie are universally accomplished and universally repulsive. You want ropily muscular ovipositors emerging from unexpected bodily orifices? Check! You want the grossly distended bodies of the human hosts of alien broodlings? Check! You want heads blown away by point-blank shotgun blasts? Check! People graphically sliced in two? Check! Cannibalism? Check! A crowd of people merging into a single fleshy super-organism? Check! Acid-spewing zombies? Check! I could go on
but I'm planning to eat at some point in the future. God only knows how the most graphic horror movie I've seen in years got away with only a 15 certificate in the UK - twenty years ago this would have been on the banned list, I'm certain.
As you've probably gathered, this kind of film is the sort of thing you would usually associate with either reasonable performances or subtle comedy, but it's very much to Slither's credit that it has both. You're either familiar with Nathan Fillion's rumpled charms or you're not and while he may have been hired here simply in the hope this would encourage Firefly's dedicated (to put it mildly) fanbase to bump up the box office (certainly his performance as Bill Party is very
Mal Reynolds-ish in places), he gives the film a strong and likeable centre. Banks and Rooker are also effective, as is Tania Saulnier as a teenager caught up in the icky nightmare and Gregg Henry as Wheelsy's Mayor. Elsewhere the film has some rather droll things to say about small-town life and never completely loses its sense of humour, even though that humour is tending towards darkness by the end.
In a way it's a shame that Slither was released right on the doorstep of blockbuster season, as it's bound to get squashed by the much bigger releases coming out over the next few weeks. That said, the mainstream appeal of a film like this was always going to be a bit limited, and the kind of people who watch this sort of thing are the kind of people dedicated enough to seek it out, if required to. I wouldn't like to go and see this kind of film too often, and Slither is an unusually accomplished example of the genre anyway - but as something a bit different from the norm, I was hugely impressed, my enjoyment thoroughly eclipsing my nausea. Probably not for everyone, but those with open minds and strong stomachs will definitely be entertained.
Smirk Gets In Your Eyes
Funnily enough, we go from a film about bizarre and unnatural methods of reproduction to Tom Cruise's latest project. (Yeah, yeah, bring on your lawyers: you ain't got nothing on me!) This is Mission: Impossible 3, as if you didn't already know, co-written and directed by JJ Abrams, the creator of Alias and Lost. This is one franchise which isn't afraid to drag its feet while the Cruiser gets on with other things - it's ten years since Brian de Palma's (quite nifty) original, and six since John Woo's (kinetic but soulless) follow-up. Well anyway, clearly it has been decreed it's time for a third installment and our presence in the multiplex is clearly expected.
As you would expect given the director's pedigree, this latest outing finds Tom Cruise stranded on a tropical island with an invisible monster and a female student who's secretly a top spy. Ha! Ha! Oh, my sides. All right - it doesn't really. Instead, our toothsome inch-high superspy has gone into semi-retirement as a trainer of other agents and is all set for domestic bliss with his fiancee - no, it's not Thandie Newton from the last movie, she clearly got sick of never being allowed to wear heels, it's someone new. But then - wouldn't you know it! - one of Tom's
trainees gets into trouble and he's sent in to rescue her. This does not go entirely to plan and Tom finds himself on the wrong side of lardy arms dealer Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose main hobby is putting bombs up peoples' noses. A fink within the IMF eventually gives Hoffman the forwarding address of Tom's new bride and our hero finds himself having to nick a crucial plot device Macguffin for him before his wife gets put six feet under and his own sinuses get decongested with extreme prejudice...
Despite what you may be thinking, Abrams does work fairly hard to make this more than just a cynical cash-in on the Mission: Impossible name. The premise of the show (each week a disparate team of Impossible Missionaries got sent on an unfeasibly complicated, er, mission) is reflected in the structure of the movie - obviously Tom is the Chief Impossible, aided by Deputy Impossible Ving Rhames (yup, back again, still with moustache) and Assistant Impossibles Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (Our own Simon Pegg pops up in a couple of scenes as a very junior Impossible who isn't let out of HQ, presumably because
his costume isn't stylish enough.) Anyway the film is written so Tom and the gang have to go Impossibling in a different location every thirty minutes or so - there is a good deal of globe-trotting involved in this but with the exception of a ridiculous caper inside the Vatican all the locations are used strictly as 'colour' - apart from the trip to Rome, they could probably have set the whole film within thirty miles of Birmingham without it needing very much in the way of rewriting. Lalo
Schifrin's classic theme gets blasted out fairly regularly too, which is nice, but the classic 'your mission, if you choose to accept it...' schtick is very nearly abandoned, which isn't.
The plot is fairly bonkers, but acceptably so, and the film only really gets dull in between bouts of Impossibling. At these points Tom hangs out with Ving Rhames (who used to be an ace hacker but who, to judge from his interest in Tom's personal life, has since retrained as a relationship counsellor) or gets dragged over the coals by snippy IMF boss Laurence Fishburne, who appears to have been on the pies since finishing the Matrix trilogy. Both of these are fairly grim but much, much worse are the segments where we get to see Tom and his missus hanging out and generally just being in love with each other. Yes, Tom's teeth go into overdrive, flashing and pulsating away like an Aldis lamp.
To be fair, his performance throughout is also quite acceptable but the fact remains that when on screen, no matter what the movie, he frequently looks completely nuts - and when, as in this case, the script does not address that fact, the results are rarely entirely satisfying. Hoffman, who's a much more versatile performer, gets considerably less screentime and his part is so thinly written even an actor of his abilities struggles to really make an impression.
JJ Abrams does a decent job as a debut director, with a fair eye for a striking composition. He achieves some neat effects, too: in particular a sequence where real-live-Tom-in-a-Hoffman mask is seamlessly replaced by Hoffman himself playing Tom-in-a-Hoffman mask is very neatly done. He seems to be aware of the dangers of franchise fatigue as well - one of the set-piece bits of Impossibling here is dangerously similar to one from earlier in the series, and Abrams handles it in an unexpected way that keeps it relatively fresh. He also handles the blatant nature of the central Macguffin with amusing impudence - though whether this is done as a post-modern in-joke or as an act of sheer desperation I don't know. I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but only if he explains what those ruddy numbers are all about by the end of the year...
In the end, though, this is a fairly sterile and mechanical piece of entertainment. The individual bits of Impossibling are entertaining and amusing and there are some effective bits of action along the way - but the climax is rather low-key, and the film's attempts to be politically relevant come across as strained and spurious. It doesn't play with the audience's expectations in the way the first film did, and doesn't have much in the way of novelty value either. As a popcorn movie, it works, and I expect it will do very well at the box office. But the prospect of
another six year wait before the next installment doesn't bother me in the slightest.