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Credit: Universal Pictures

James Gunn started his journey to Marvel with 'Slither,' a Troma throwback

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Mar 29, 2021, 5:26 PM EDT (Updated)

Zombified kids, a basement full of mutilated pets, an abducted single mother who literally explodes having been impregnated by an army of alien parasites. You have to admire the audacity of whichever Marvel executive looking for someone to helm their latest $200 million-plus, PG-13 franchise-spawner watched Slither and concluded "that's our guy."

Packed with an unashamedly disgusting mix of slime, splatter, and slugs, James Gunn's directorial debut thrived on grossing out its rather meager audience 15 years ago — several years before Marvel would ultimately tap him to helm Guardians of the Galaxy. And its cast, too, it seems. Brenda James, the actress required to sport prosthetics that would balloon her like a nightmarish Violet Beauregarde, burst into tears after learning about the hilariously icky fate of her namesake character.

Credit: Universal Pictures

The story of a sleepy American town invaded by parasitical creepy-crawlies from another planet, Slither was accused of plagiarizing the premise of Fred Dekker's 1986 VHS favorite Night of the Creeps when its trailer first hit. Sure, they share a strand of DNA or two. But Gunn also borrowed from countless other schlockfests — early David Cronenberg efforts The Brood and The Fly, in particular — not to mention Junji Ito's manga comic series Uzumaki to produce a far more outlandish mutation of body horror.

In fact, Gunn's key influence was undoubtedly the studio that gave him a crash-course in movie-making, Troma Entertainment. Taken under the wing of head honcho Lloyd Kaufman, the future Marvel man spent the mid-to-late-'90s writing, producing, and no doubt providing the catering for the studio that prides itself on making the most tasteless fare for the least amount of money possible. He even wrote the book on it.

Gunn first put his name on the map with 1997's Tromeo and Juliet, a politically-incorrect Shakespeare adaptation that made Baz Luhrmann's MTV-friendly redo the year previously look slavishly faithful. We can't remember the Bard ever describing Tybalt as a "s***head," "dweeb," or "fiddlef***er," that's for sure. Likewise, the tragic heroine transforming into a mutant cow complete with three penises.

Two years later, Gunn was once again pushing the boundaries of decency with Terror Firmer, a meta-exploitation picture about a homicidal hermaphrodite (to use the offensive, outdated terminology of the movie) attempting to off a low-paid New York film crew. Its death-by-escalator scene has to be seen to be believed. And after penning the scripts for films as strangely diverse as Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed and Dawn of the Dead, Gunn decided to draw upon his experiences of trash cinema to make his very own cult classic.

Thankfully, Gunn curtailed the problematic sense of humor that would later see him fired (if only briefly) from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise he so successfully steered. There's still plenty of crude one-liners from Slither: "Jesus Christ, it looks like something that fell off my d**k during the war" remarks cop Tourneur (Tom Heaton) after first seeing the tentacled monster that ends up amalgamating Wheelsy's entire population. However, there's nothing to provide any ammunition for vengeful conspiracy theorists.

Gunn does double down, though, on the squeamish special effects that his old stomping ground built their reputation on. Of course, where Troma's intestine-spilling costumes looked like they were knocked up in half an hour with sticky back plastic, Slither's production company gave the first-time filmmaker a budget of roughly $15 million.

From Brenda's horrifically-swollen body (described by Gunn as "a big boob with her head as a nipple") to the pudgy blood-red slugs that might deter some from ever taking a bath again, you can see where every cent went on screen, too. Most jaw-dropping of all is the slow-building transformation of Grant (Michael Rooker) from human husband to Lovecraftian beast whose hive mind inspires every infected resident to submerge themselves in his gooey, amorphous frame. As police chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) neatly summates: "That's some f***ed up s***."

Yet Slither has more to offer than just brilliantly repulsive blobs. Reacting to all the tongue-in-cheek madness with a relatively straight face, the game cast pitches their performances perfectly. Elizabeth Banks is particularly impressive as Starla, Grant's badass wife capable of surviving everything from undead deer to flying sofas. It's her dogged determination that ensures at least three people walk away at the end relatively unscathed.

Gregg Henry, meanwhile, appears to be having a blast as the foul-mouthed mayor pushed to his breaking point not by seeing his entire hometown obliterated by an extra-terrestrial life force but by the dearth of his favorite soda. He's the closest Slither gets to Troma's standard jerks.

Sadly, cinemagoers weren't quite ready to embrace Gunn's anarchic, genre-blurring approach at the time. Slither took less than $13 million at the worldwide box office, a figure that left Gold Circle Films “crushingly disappointed." Still, along with his equally underrated follow-up, Super, four years later, Marvel bosses obviously saw enough potential to hand over the Guardians of the Galaxy reigns.

And the adventures of an alien-human, talking raccoon, and sentient tree aren't as distant from Slither as you might think. Both almost outrival Quentin Tarantino in the pop culture reference stakes (see character names inspired by Rosemary's Baby and The Thing, for example, or Troma classic The Toxic Avenger briefly popping up in the background). The prominent use of Air Supply's soft-rock anthem "Every Woman in the World" wouldn’t sound out of place on Star-Lord's Walkman, either.

There are more blatant similarities, too. Rooker (blue-skinned space pirate Yondu) Henry (Quill's grandfather) and Fillion (the voice of Monstrous Inmate) were all given GotG roles with varying degrees of screentime. Even Kaufman got a brief cameo. And those pesky red slugs who are shown in the post-credits scene to have survived the deadly blast that killed their main host? Well, they pop up in Benicio del Toro's collection of outer space species.

Still, Gunn always seemed prepared for his first feature to appeal more to the midnight crowd than the multiplexes. When asked about its place in the horror landscape of 2006 by IGN, he replied, "I think Slither is the weird kid in the back of the class that is putting his boogers underneath the desk, so I don't think we do fit in."

Interestingly, Peter Dinklage (Avengers: Infinity War, X-Men: Days of Future Past) will be making the even unlikelier journey from Marvel to Troma when he stars in the upcoming remake of The Toxic Avenger. Gunn's involvement — despite earlier reports to the contrary — will only be as a viewer. Even so, he'll always be the poles-apart studios' ultimate link.