If you saw James Gunn’s Slither during its initial theatrical run in 2006, as I did, you may well have been thoroughly entertained, as I was, but you’d also be forgiven for not immediately deducing that in 15 short years, this director would be one of the most accomplished and venerated genre filmmakers in the business, some brief but intense controversy notwithstanding. Gunn, who cut his teeth working for Troma Entertainment (an indie factory of tastelessness and splatter run for decades by the delightfully eccentric Lloyd Kaufman), had emerged as a successful screenwriter of more mainstream fare including the live-action Scooby-Doo films and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. Ready to establish himself as a director, he chose to make his voice known with Slither, an alien invasion/body snatcher/body horror/zombie love story sprinkled with generous amounts of dark humor.
Though it failed to make much impact at the box office, the film was a hit with critics, who appreciated Gunn’s craft and creativity, and has since developed a cult following. There was enough goodwill there to fuel his next film, the somehow darker comic-book satire Super, which used a combination of brutal violence and superhero savvy to great effect. So great, in fact, that Marvel Studios was able to overlook the sheer gruesomeness of the film and recognize Gunn’s love for the source material, as they hired him to direct their greatest risk at the time, an adaptation of an obscure group of characters known as the Guardians of the Galaxy.
The rest, of course, is history. Through Gunn’s irreverent style and heartfelt characterization, the Guardians went from being Marvel D-listers to among the most popular figures in the entire MCU. The film was the biggest financial hit of his career by a significant margin, and he went on to replicate its success three years later with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which was somehow even bolder, weirder, and emotional than the first time around, not to mention more lucrative for Marvel. James Gunn had gone from being a peddler of schlock to the mastermind of one of the most popular franchises in the world, and was all set to reprise his duties for the Guardians’ third outing, until…
Listen, you don’t need me to remind you what happened next. Suffice to say that due to the efforts of some bad faith activists, Gunn found himself in a temporary state of not directing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (a hasty decision that was ultimately rectified). Lucky for film fans everywhere, in the brief window between not directing the film and then being rehired to direct the film, DC scooped him up and ultimately entrusted him with a soft reboot of one of their commercially viable but critically maligned properties. Flash forward to today, and The Suicide Squad will be releasing on August 6th. Much of the publicity surrounding the film has leaned on the idea that Gunn was given complete creative control, with no greater edict than to make the most entertaining film possible.
Having seen the film, I can assure you that he succeeded in this assignment with flying colors. The Suicide Squad is a monumental achievement in genre filmmaking, not just because it’s one of the best superhero films in recent memory, but because of the unique sensibilities that Gunn brings to the project. Everything on display is unmistakably filtered through his voice and outlook. The finished product brings the edgy, provocatively disgusting content of his work with Troma and of his early films, along with the heart and big-budget spectacle that he utilized in the Guardians of the Galaxy films. In many ways, it feels like the ultimate summation of his directing career so far, with all his signature quirks and proclivities on full, glorious display.
While Gunn’s prowess as a technical filmmaker has grown at a commensurate rate to his command of larger budgets, the tonal gray area between the extremes of heart, humor, and horror that he thrives within is fully evident in Slither. On its surface, this is your classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff with a healthy serving of grotesque practical effects (and a fair bit of CGI that, by the director’s own admission, hasn’t aged incredibly well). However, it’s the details that really make this a James Gunn film. And at the heart of it all is one of his most frequent collaborators, Michael Rooker. In his first outing with the director who would come to use him as something of a good luck charm, the actor plays Grant Grant, a wealthy man who’s deeply insecure about his trophy wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks). He’s so concerned that she might leave him for a younger, more conventionally attractive man, that he very nearly cheats on her himself in drunken frustration (though to his credit, he cuts the potential affair short before it has a chance to get too far).
The characterization of Grant as a flawed but loving husband is key, because in short order, he finds himself infected by an alien parasite bent on world domination. The entity, now using Grant’s body as a host, goes about impregnating the local girl Grant nearly had a tryst with (through the use of two chest tentacles that are only slightly less gross than if he’d done it the old-fashioned way), and feeding her dead animals and raw meat until she’s grown to the size of the barn he keeps her in. She eventually explodes from the pressure, releasing hundreds of slug-like creatures upon the town, who set about burrowing their way into people’s mouths and taking control of their minds. The mechanics of how the aliens go about controlling the populace are suspiciously similar to those of DC Comics antagonist Starro the Conqueror, who just so happens to appear in The Suicide Squad. I won’t spoil the exact nature of his appearance, but considering that Gunn has described in interviews how Starro always terrified him as a child, one wonders if the giant starfish may have somehow influenced the aliens in Gunn’s first film before going on to be featured in his latest film.
But back to Grant. What makes the interstellar hive mind in Slither so engaging is that while it does control all those whom the slugs infect (which quickly expands to the majority of the town), it’s also tangled up with Grant’s consciousness. He may no longer be fully in control of his actions, but his pettiness, his jealousies, his lust, and most importantly, his love for Starla are all present within the entity’s larger goal of consuming the planet. The fact that traces of the man are still present in the monstrous physical form he mutates into, and the fact that all those the creature possesses seem to speak in Grant’s voice, gives the monster a tragic, pitiful dimension. Rather than add her to his growing horde once he captures her, he instead has his many bodies take her home, brush her hair, change her clothes. He has them place pictures of the two of them together all throughout the house, which is transformed into both a shrine of their love and a hub for the rapidly expanding, amorphous blob that he is becoming. The prominent use of Air Supply’s “Every Woman in the World” gives this sequence an extra touch of sweetness while still feeling profoundly creepy (it would also be an early indicator of Gunn’s Tarantino-esque ability to deftly incorporate all eras of pop music into his storytelling).
Despite some truly gag-inducing creature design, the human element is never lost in Gunn’s monster, which is something of a running theme throughout his filmography, far beyond the inclusion of a candy-colored alien starfish. He has a deep, abiding love for the misfits, the weirdos, the outcasts, the dregs of society. It’s evident all throughout Slither, not just in the invaders but in the denizens of its humble little town, almost all of whom are the kinds of people that would never be welcome in what some consider the nicer parts of the world. They lead simple lives, many of them rarely dreaming about anything more exciting than the annual deer hunt. They’re what gets dismissed as the “deplorables”, based more on their economic standing and their location than any political affiliation, and while he doesn’t shy away from showing their strange rituals and individual quirks, Gunn clearly has a great deal of affection for them. Not that this will stop him from depicting almost every man, woman, and child on screen becoming consumed by the sudden onslaught of brain worms to come.
This affection for the unappealing underdog can be felt throughout the rest of Gunn’s work. It can be felt in Rainn Wilson’s sad-sack wannabe vigilante from Super, who takes out his misery and inadequacies by enacting his own twisted interpretation of justice. It can be felt in every member of both the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Suicide Squad, all of whom are assorted criminals, monsters, murderers, and genetic abominations that the rest of society would happily discard without a second thought. And here, despite all the shlock, all the bloodshed, all the dick jokes, and all the other crude and vile storytelling devices Gunn uses often and with glee, is what makes his films stand above the rest. The notion that no matter how outwardly reprehensible, no matter how awful one’s past actions have been, that we are all capable and deserving of love. That those who’ve been otherwise abandoned and encouraged to follow their worst impulses can still find redemption, can give love as well as receive it, can form surrogate families and find a home among their own kind.
In many ways, Grant dies as soon as the alien egg fires that dart into his chest. All that’s left within the would-be alien conqueror is the remnants of his personality, the man he used to be, with all his warts and imperfections and desires intact. And though his wife is ultimately forced to destroy the thing he has become in order to save the world, it is with tears in her eyes as she bids farewell to the man she loved. Slither may very well end in tragedy, but by taking the time to gift its villain with a sense of understanding and emotional shading, and by characterizing its heroes with a communal bond that can only come when your back is to the wall and the only ones standing by your side are the ones who, directly or indirectly, know exactly how you feel, it achieves an emotional complexity rarely seen in what would otherwise get dismissed as B-movie fare. From Super to Guardians to The Suicide Squad and presumably onwards, these are just some of the core elements that make a James Gunn movie special. And one can only hope he’ll keep gifting us with such genre masterworks for years to come.
The Suicide Squad releases in theaters and HBO Max on August 6. I cannot overstate how much you need to see it. Be sure to let me know your favorite James Gunn film and what you love about his work in the comments below!