Thursday, February 16, 2012

"The Other Way Around:" James Gunn's 'Slither' and the Gender/Identity Politics of Horror

In horror films, sexual objectification typically leads to death. The films encourage their audience to appreciate a body for its aesthetic qualities, and shortly thereafter to enjoy watching that body get mutilated and torn/blown apart. The filmmakers focus on getting to their movie's next “body moment” to the exclusion of nearly every traditional element of “story” or “character.” In a genre that so heavily loads its scales on one side, Slither stands out, as it crafts multi-faceted characters, rather than mere objects of repulsion and/or desire. When Starla Grant, Bill Pardy, and even Kylie Strutemyer walk away from the Grants' obliterated home at Slither's end, they've survived not only an attempted invasion by an alien hive mind, but a camera (and an audience) that all too frequently reduce characters like them to cutouts and dolls.


Starla (Elizabeth Banks) has a heavy burden to bear: she married the richest man in Woodsville, Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), at a young age, and had to live with accusations of gold-digging ever since. Despite her dedicated work as the high school's science teacher, and status as both a faithful wife and upstanding member of the community, she's not shaken her “reputation.” Tough, smart, and self-possessed, Starla carries on with her head up high, even though she bristles both at her husband's possessive ways, and the judgemental looks of her neighbors. As luck, or screenwriting, would have it, she's the perfect woman to take on the alien menace that invades her husband's body and plans to spread first across her town, and the world shortly thereafter.
 
Banks doesn't have a Ripley-undressing-at-the-end-of-Alien-style moment; she's objectified by her husband, and the townspeople, for sure, but only once in the beginning by the camera: a shot of her behind, from the POV of one of her students. That same student who gazes at her inappropriately sketches her naked in his notebook; his behavior receives a disappointed reaction from his classmates. Even though she spends the last quarter or so of the film in a nightgown, and part of that with the sharp end of a hairbrush hidden in her underwear, the camera focuses on the war between determination and disgust on her face to the exclusion of any other part of her body. One way or another, she will rid her husband of his alien possession. Plenty of horror films like to disgust and titillate their audience in the same moment; Slither works too hard setting up its laughs and scares to spend time anywhere else. 
 
Even when Kylie (Tania Saulnier) – a young woman, one of Starla's students – gets attacked by the alien slug creatures in her bath, and she scrambles around the bathroom naked for the entire scene, Slither and its camera don't try to wring objectification or arousal from the sequence. As an audience, our interest lies more in seeing her fry one of the slugs with her curling iron, anyway.

Slither has three scenes that explicitly deal with sex (physical penetration, really), and each one of them involves Creature/Grant. The most abbreviated and tastefully shot of them comes when Starla greets Grant the morning after his possession, offering him an apology in the form of a morning quickie and reaffirming her love for him. They embrace, lie down on one of the plush couches in their living room, and the camera gently moves away to leave them in peace. The other two - where the creature impregnates Brenda with the space slugs, and at the end as it attempts to do the same to Bill - are the opposite of tender (at that point, we're watching double penetration alien tentacle rape), and shot accordingly. The camera gets in close, bumps up and down, shakes around, and really lingers on the sight of the tentacles erupting from the Creature/Grant's form as they smash into the bodies of their victims. Form follows function in Slither; the movie doesn't just want you to see the horror, but to feel it.

While in almost any other film of this sort, the Creature/Grant's assault and impregnation of single mother and Grant Grant torch-carrier Brenda Gutierrez could easily be seen as comeuppance for her loose morals, Slither has no interest in dealing out judgment like that. At the time the creature infected Grant, he only had two women on his mind: Starla and Brenda. When the creature couldn't override Grant's love for Starla, it had only one other option for the incubation of its offspring: Brenda. The creature does not personify of “traditional” morality, like so many enemies in horror films, but acts exclusively as a ravenous, dominating consumer. The only “morals” it might have are holdovers from Grant's personality.

Now, we'd be loath to forget newly-appointed sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), who's loved Starla from varying distances since they were both quite young. Like Starla, Bill embodies several traits, ones that most horror films would usually parse out singularly to individual characters. Cool-headed, authoritative, and rugged, Bill's the manliest man in Woodsville, but he's never been able to do more than hold a torch for her, as one of his deputies remarks. In the middle of the event celebrating the start of deer season, Bill offhandedly mentions how little he cares for the idea of hunting.

Bill has sufficient awareness of the contradictions in his nature that he's comfortable poking fun at himself. After Kylie rescues Bill from a possessed deer, he thanks her profusely and immediately admits that he fully intends to reverse their roles when he tells the story. "Like I saved you," he mutters. He's got himself a reputation to uphold, and Kylie seems willing to help him preserve it.

It's Grant's obsession with Starla that proves the creature's ultimate undoing at the film's conclusion. There's just enough of him left that he's not able to hurt her, true, but that remaining bit of Grant Grant also fuels the monster's raging assault against Bill Pardy. So singularly focused on Bill is the creature that it no longer notices Starla or the gun she retrieves. She fires a single bullet into a tentacle, now engorged with propane thanks to Bill's quick thinking, and a huge explosion later, the plague that settled on the town has lifted, leaving behind it only massive property damage and a slew of corpses. Bill prompts Kylie to tell Starla the story of how he saved her from that deer. They both smile knowingly as they trudge away from the site of the final battle, secure in their humanity, both in their world, and on our screen.

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