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Slither is silly and gross, but it might worm its way into your heart

We are in the middle of a B-movie renaissance, if you haven't noticed. For years now, the politics of the multiplex have forced films to be either big-budget, Burger King-cup blockbusters or tiny "indie" projects about college-educated Caucasians with emotional problems (and viewed by college-educated Caucasians with emotional problems). But between these slices of fluffy white bread and dry multigrain, there hasn't been much meat: mid-budget sex-and-violence romps filled with character actors and fun. You know, movies.

Ah, but as more and more profits come from DVDs, and as Internet marketing makes it easier to reach niche markets, a few riskier films are popping up. It won't kill the summer giant or the whiny indie, but it will give us more stuff like the horror/comedy slugfest Slither. And we'll call that a good thing.

The slugfest in this case involves no punches thrown, but rather a bunch of slugs. Space slugs — the kind that turn some people into cannibalistic slug men, others into acid-loogy-hawking zombies and others still into giant globular slug-sows. (You are now armed with enough information to know whether Slither is the movie for you.) It's not quite as original as it sounds, as writer-director (and St. Louis native) James Gunn borrows from the '80s space-slug/zombie flick Night of the Creeps, the horror comedy Tremors and a passel of other films. But Gunn, whose scriptwriting debut was the classic Shakespeare spoof Tromeo & Juliet, and who also penned the recent, decent Dawn of the Dead remake, is a master at honoring his influences while being truly original.

It all begins in the small town of Wheelsy, when local moneybags Grant Grant (played with slimy gusto by Michael Rooker) gets drunk in the woods and — oops! — accidentally gets invaded by a meteorite-borne space worm. Soon enough, he's neglecting his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) in favor of raw meat and impregnating other women with worm spawn. You can't say these first fifteen minutes are boring, but they are the film's biggest misstep. Gunn takes the time to develop the marital problems between husband and wife, when it's all fairly clear that Grant has much bigger concerns to deal with. While all this is going on, we know that the hero of the film is Police Chief Pardy, inasmuch as he is clearly the best-looking man in town and is played by sci-fi star Nathan Fillion. But Gunn keeps the chief in the wings, while Grant gets all sluggy.

Fillion, whose best-known work is as Captain Mal Reynolds on the wonderful television show Firefly and film adaptation Serenity, has the looks and sense of humor to be the next Bruce Campbell. He can deliver a punch line in the heat of battle without breaking the mood (although the biggest laugh goes to Gregg Henry, who is topnotch as foul-mouthed mayor Jack MacReady). Once Henry, Fillion and the rest of his police force starting hunting for Grant (who by this time has taken to eating neighborhood pets), Slither starts running and never really stops. Big slugs, little slugs, slug guts, people guts, zombie deer, giant gloopy people piles. Hell yes, we're having fun.

The movie's flaws are standard-issue for the genre. Character development is kept to a minimum, the love-interest angle between Pardy and Grant's wife feels mandatory and forced, and the proceedings are too tongue-in-cheek to generate any actual shivers (just laughs and ewwws). For a first-time director, Gunn's work is certainly adequate, though nothing outside of the effects (a smart blend of CGI and practicals) will blow you away. Also, Slither's few hints at deeper meaning — the film is set at the start of deer-hunting season, and there's some talk about evolution that never takes off — just feel out of place.

So no, there's nothing in the movie that will convince you to love space-slug gore fests. Slither is what it is, unapologetically, and unlike Gunn's work on Dawn of the Dead, it's probably too weird to be a crossover hit. Either you've got worms in your heart or you don't.

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