Slithis (1978)

OCTOBER 6, 2016


As a very vocal champion of physical media, you would think I'd want every movie I enjoy to have some kind of spiffy special edition Blu-ray (if you're reading this review in the year 2050, replace "Blu-ray" with whatever tech you have now), which would offer a complete-ish look at its inception, production, and other history. But when I see a movie like Slithis (aka Spawn of the Slithis), I almost don't want it to get that kind of treatment. A commentary or 45 minute retrospective would likely prove that the screenwriter was not an alien mimicking human behavior, and that the actors did indeed know the camera was on them during some of their scenes, and that would ruin a lot of its appeal for me. Finding out these people were humans and knew what they were doing would just make me sad.

Yes, Slithis is one of those special movies where everything is just "off" throughout its 90ish minute runtime, changing what might have been a generic and poorly paced monster flick into a B-movie masterpiece. Every few minutes I was howling at something: the hero reading a story about two dead dogs on the front page of the LA Times; the will-be victim protesting his wife's request to put on a bathrobe before checking out the noises they hear, the random cop who sneezes his way through his one scene until our hero offers him eucalyptus leaves - all of this occurs in the movie's first 10-15 minutes, mind you. There's a guy we meet probably 45-50 minutes into the movie who gets more of an introduction than our main characters (bonus: if Will Ferrell and/or Adam McKay have ever seen the movie, there is no doubt in my mind that he was the inspiration for Ron Burgandy), which includes its own weirdness (a turtle fight?), as if they were introducing a spinoff movie within the edit of their first one.

As for our actual hero, he's the very bitter/bored head of the local school newspaper, who takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of the Slithis in order to escape his terrible life of shaping young minds so that he can... get a job at the paper, I guess? Over the course of the film he puts together a sad little crew, including a scientist pal and a boat captain who dives for evidence at his urging (our hero doesn't really DO much beyond know people who actually do the work). He also has a girlfriend (or wife? Sorry, I'm writing this a week later so details are hazy) who the director and/or editor is fond of cutting to even if she's not doing anything or contributing in any meaningful way. Or even reacting properly; the hero and his scientist buddy will be talking about their theories and it will cut to her smiling as if one of them just complimented her new haircut. But weird edits are not uncommon in the film - in that same scene, when the scientist comes over the camera doesn't bother to show him entering. Instead we just hear him do so as the camera remains locked on the living room, so you might just assume they couldn't move the camera for whatever reason, but then not 30 seconds later it pans and tracks the wife as she goes into the kitchen to grab him a drink.

Interestingly, the editor went on to edit a few episodes of Dukes of Hazzard, while the director only helmed one other film - a TV movie starring Bo Duke himself, John Schneider. For all we know they didn't ever pursue these jobs again, but Slithis - enjoyable as it is - offers plenty of evidence that they should leave such things to other folks. The pacing is saved only by pointless jibber jabber that really only works with an appreciative (and possibly inebriated in some cases) crowd. It's nearly impossible to see movies made this far outside the studio system on the big screen today, which means if you're not watching them alone you're with a friend and talking over the slower scenes - and that's where this movie's personality really shines through. The monster doesn't look too bad all things considered, but when it's killing folks it's just another monster movie - it's those quiet moments that I find myself thinking about, like the aforementioned bathrobe bit, or the lengthy cameo by Hy Pyke as a police lieutenant who overacts and mugs his way through his one scene as if he will be executed if he stops bugging his eyes out or shouting random words in his dialogue. Like, when the monster dies you almost wish the movie was only halfway through so we could spend another 40 minutes with all these weirdos.

Or 25 minutes every week. There's a delightfully odd sequence late in the film when our heroes discuss their plan, the sort of scene that you see in pretty much any monster movie. But what makes this one unique is that we see them talk for maybe 20 seconds, and then there's a cut to the four of them in a different spot, lined up differently, continuing the conversation as if they hadn't just changed position. It feels a lot like the hangout shots you'd see in an old sitcom, where the cast is just goofing off and they'd use highlights in between the closeup cards with their credit (think Friends, or, god help us, Three's Company). Except they're just talking about killing a Slithis and had no reason to be moving around so much during their conversation. Some of director Stephen Traxler's now trademark directorial in-confidence is on display here too - the sequence kicks off with a long zoom across the water to where the four are standing, at the end of which he zooms back out a bit (he's still too far to even really see any of them clearly anyway).

For the life of me I can't understand why it was paired with Tourist Trap, as the only thing they have in common as far as I can tell is that they're both late 70s horror movies set in California (was was the third film, The Dark, which was a lot more like Slithis, making Tourist Trap the oddball in both narrative and actual quality). I had only seen the film (one of my favorites, you might recall - and one of very few "non canon" reviews to make it into the HMAD book) on 35mm once before, and it wasn't the best print - this one was better, albeit still faded and occasionally beat up (mainly at the reel changes). It was one of the movies I often requested to show when I screened films there, but was told a print couldn't be found - *shrug* - so it was nice to finally be able to see it there, even if I wasn't hosting. Since it had been a number of years since I watched it, it was fun catching up with it, enjoying Robin Sherwood's all too brief appearance (just like Halloween and Friday the 13th - the girl I find the most attractive is among the first to die!) and laughing along with everyone at Davey's bizarre voice. As for The Dark, I kept falling asleep and eventually just went home before it ended, but I had seen it before (or at least, sat through the whole thing - some parts seemed completely foreign to me, so I probably kept falling asleep when I last saw it there in 2013), and quickly remembered that the film's behind the scenes story is much more interesting than the one on screen. Unlike Slithis it had professional actors and real filmmaking on display, so when it was dull it was just dull - not off-the-wall like this one. Worth seeing for William Devane's unusual performance though.

Long story short, this is the kind of movie I would only want to watch with a repertory crowd (a respectful one, not a bunch of assholes trying out for MST3k gigs). If I watched this at home I'd probably get bored quick, as the monster doesn't appear enough and the lead either can't act or simply chooses not to (he sells insurance now, for what it's worth), making it a tough movie to retain your focus. But in a theater you kind of have no choice but to stick with it, and then it's also magnifying the film's quirky little personality, which shines through JUST enough to make this worth seeing under the right circumstances. You can see the Hy Pyke scene on Youtube to get a taste of the strange madness, but be warned - that's about as good as it gets, so if you spoil it for yourself out of context you might be setting yourself up for disappointment (sort of like the people who have only seen the "highlights" of the Wicker Man remake and assume the whole movie is like that). You've been warned!

What say you?


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