Slither preview screening

I attended the mondo bizarro screening of SLITHER last night at the venerable Vista Theatre in Los Feliz (one of the best movie house in the Los Angeles area).

What made the event bizarre was that Universal Pictures was giving the red carpet treatment to what is, essentially a campy, blood-soaked, Troma-type horror film — it’s the sort of subject matter normally found in a direct-to-video schlock opus, but in this case it appears in a film with a decent budget and recognizeable actors (e.g., Michael Rooker, of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER).

The sidewalks were blocked off so that cameras could grab footage of the cast and crew as they entered the theatre. Inside, SLITHER’s writer-director James Gunn (who penned the script for the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake a couple years ago) briefly addressed the audience:

“I was watching the Oscars the other night, and I was thinking how fun it will be next year when all of us are there to win Best Picture for SLITHER,” he began, then quickly added — as if there was any doubt — that he was joking. “I’ll be [quoted] on BloodyDisgusting.Com tomorrow [predicting an Oscar win],” he lamented.

Gunn then thanked Universal Pictures for how they handled the film’s production and marketing campaign, saying he thinks few if any first-time directors were so lucky as he was. He also thanked his wife:

“She has had to put u with my psycho-sexual issues in real life, and now she has to put up with them on film,” he joked, referring to one key plot element of the movie (the leading lady’s husband mutates into a squid-like monstrosity but still wants to remain on — shall we say? — intimate terms with her).

The screening went over well, but approximately half the audience was cast and crew, so your results may vary. The film’s advertising campaign is slightly schizophrenic, promising both laughs and genuine horror; the former were reasonably abundant, but that latter was negligible — because you just can’t take it seriously.

The film begins with a quote from THE BLOB (a meteor falls to Earth, bringing a monster) and then just keeps on quoting from just about everything: NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS, and THE FLY, George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD, Wes Craven’s DEADLY BLESSING and/or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, sexually violent Japanese anime like UROTSUKIDOJI, and even — strangely enough — A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.

Unlike Gunn’s script for the DAWN remake, characterization is in relatively short supply; it’s not totally absent, but it’s pretty clear from the beginning that this is mostly a “shooting gallery” cast of victims that we’re not supposed to care about much, except for the leading lady and leading man. There is little sense of believability to the action, because that would stand in the way of the fun: if we really believed this stuff, it would be horrible, but if we know we’re just watching a movie, we can sit back and scream with laughter.

The result is a cult movie all the way — basically, a Troma film with a bigger budget (in case we miss the parallels, Gunn underlines them by showing a clip from THE TOXIC AVENGER). There are lots of outrageous special effects and gore; some of it’s disgusting, but none of it is really scary, because the whole thing is way silly, and the Gunn lets you know he knows it’s silly.

In a way, SLITHER comes close to being one of those horror films I cited in this post, one that is all bark and no bite, pretending to be uncompromised because it doesn’t shy away from tossing buckets of blood onto the screen but actually shying away from genuinely frightening an audience. The difference is that the film knows exactly what is is and has a sense of humor about itself. For example: “That’s some pretty fucked up shit,” one character observes in a deadpan whisper, while viewing the latest atrocity.

After the film, there was a party at Malo, a nifty little Mexican cantina a block or two east on Sunset Blvd. The cast and crew filled up the dark, tiny space — essentially two rooms inside (a bar and a dining area) and an exterior patio for those unfortunate smokers no longer allowed to dine inside with the rest of us.

Reporters from various genre outlets squeezed around Gunn, pushing their tape recorders into his face in the hope of capturing his voice over the din of the crowd, and he did his best to explain how he managed to get a major Hollywood studio to release what is, in spirit, a low-budget exploitation-trash comedy.

I snuck out early. Much as I am lured by the temptation of free food and booze, I’m a little leery of the press-party ambience. The idea seems to be to lure reporters into feeling like part of the team by creating the sense of comraderie that comes from breaking bread together. After the studio has given you a free screening (with complimentary sodas, bottled water, and popcorn) and then, on top of that, invited you to a party to hang out with the filmmakers — well, after all that, how could you possibly be such a colossal backstabber as to say anything negative about the movie?

It’s a bit of an ethical dilemma; fortunately, in the sphere of entertainment reporting, the consequences are not great. But it does give me some insight into the problems with our Washington press corp: when you attend parties with the people you cover, you lose objectivity, and start to mutate from a reporter into a press agent.

SLITHER opens on March 31.