Slither cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, and Tanya Saulnier writer and director: James Gunn 95 minutes (15) 2006 widescreen ratio 1.85:1 EIV DVD Region 2 retail [released 16 October] RATING: 9/10 reviewed by Alasdair Stuart

By and large, 2006 has been a diabolical year for mainstream cinema. It’s been unusual in that regard because films that normally would be hailed as gems in an otherwise desolate creative wasteland have been largely ignored by critics and cinema goers alike. Slither has the dubious distinction of being one of those films.

Written and directed by James Gunn, a former Troma studios veteran, Slither is set in the small town of Wheelsy, a cheerfully normal, down at heel blue-collar place where the Sherriff, Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) is a graduate of the high school and so are most of the teachers. Only local bigwig Grant (Michael Rooker) is unusual, a big fish in a small pond, and just smart enough to realise that. Until one night, Grant has an encounter with something he really shouldn’t have and changes their lives forever.

Slither is not an original movie in terms of content or approach. This is the B-movie as its been made for the last 50 years but it’s done here with such style and energy that the limitations of the genre become positive assets. Gunn’s script neatly combines small town politics and gossip (for example, everyone knows Bill is still carrying a torch for Starla, his best friend at high school and now Mrs Grant) and no one cares, especially as hunting season is around the corner. Wheelsy is perched on that boundary between too small for comfort and too big to leave and all the characters pay the price for staying there as the film continues.

Exactly what that price is soon becomes clear. Gunn has a clear love of body horror and the monster here is both unusually subtle and unusually unpleasant. There are tantalising hints of logic beyond the simple ‘terror from beyond space’ at work but what will get your attention is the visceral way in which the monster goes about its business. There’s an early moment where Grant cleans out the meat section of the local butcher’s that hovers on the line between funny and sinister and that’s the line the entire film sits on. One of the highlights is a sequence where the Sheriff’s department and some local hunters stakeout the next likely site of an attack only to be literally torn apart. It’s funny right up until the point where it becomes horrible, the switch instantaneous and total.

Gunn’s script, time and again, provides the film with moments like this. It’s consistent, horrifying and extremely funny, balancing some utterly convincing character reactions with an unusually well thought out and intimidating monster. Wearing his other hat as director, Gunn brings these sequences neatly to life with the stakeout mentioned earlier being a particular standout. Similarly, the finale is both a wonderful piece of comedy, brutally violent, and one of those rare occasions where the hero is only one of several people who saves the day. This is a clever script, cleverly directed and normally that would be recommendation enough.

However, the cast is so uniformly strong that they manage to improve on what’s already there. Nathan Fillion in particular is starting to make a habit out of being the best thing in criminally underrated films. His Bill Pardy is a world away from Mal Reynolds of Firefly and Serenity, but maintains the same causal physicality and natural humour that Fillion brought to that role. Here, he plays a man who is the natural hero but is at as much of a loss as everyone else. Bill’s a hero but he’s never a perfect one and the film never loses the chance to point that out. After all, where else could you see the hero of a monster movie get beaten up by a possessed deer?

Elizabeth Banks, as Starla, the love of both Bill and Grant’s lives is equally impressive. Like Fillion, she’s rapidly carving out a name for herself as one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets, and she is the heart and soul of Slither. Starla is sweet, intelligent and brutally pragmatic, reacting better than many of the male characters to events and at one point making a decision that is all the more heroic for how underplayed it is. Banks and Fillion have a natural chemistry that is great fun to watch and she plays an unusually strong female lead unusually well. Finally, Rooker himself is typically superb as Grant, bringing a measure of pathos to the role as well as brute instinct whilst Gregg Henry is gifted with many of the film’s best lines.

Slither, like Snakes On A Plane, is a genuinely great B-movie. It’s smart, funny, horrific, and has a bleak streak a mile wide. It deserved better exposure at the cinema, and it certainly deserves your attention.