Right after I finished writing my review of James Gunn's Slither, I ran over to Rotten Tomatoes to see what the general concensus was among my favorite movie geeks. I was happy and surprised to see the reactions were positive; Slither has maintained a 85% - 90% approval rating since it opened last Friday. If you read through any of the worthwhile horror sites, you'll find interviews with a very pleased director and you'll find tons of geekily enthusiastic responses to the flick on various message boards and blogs.
The filmmakers liked Slither; the critics (yes, "the critics" who allegedly sneer at all sci-fi, horror, and comedy movies) liked Slither; the fanboys (well, the ones who got off their Xbox and actually went to see it) liked Slither. Heck, Universal even did a pretty solid job of selling Slither.
So why'd the flick make less than $3.9 million in its opening weekend? Did it really do less than $2,000 per theater? How'd it debut in 8th place, two spots behind the second freakin' weekend of the monumentally absymal Stay Alive?
The answer is pretty clear: Nathan Fillion is box office poison. He's the Ted McGinley of popcorn flicks. He's a terrible actor with no screen presence and a strange jaw. Between the receipts on Serenity and Slither, the guy'll be lucky to get a job in flicks like White Noise 2.
Ha. I'm kidding of course. Fillion's the freakin' man, and any genre-fan worth his salt already recognizes Nathan Fillion as the next Bruce Campbell. (A few articles have referred to Fillion as young Harrison Ford, but, as much as I love ol' Harry, he's kind of a grumpy sourpuss, whereas Nate knows how to make with the funny.)
No, I think the answer to the Slither problem is this: Flick's a tough sell, period.
We're talking about a splatter-heavy sci-fi horror comedy with romance, action, and a few freakishly disturbing visions. Heck, this is a movie tailor-made for wide-eyed 14-year-old (male) movie geeks -- and those kids spent last Friday evening participating in the "Ice Age Family Movie Night." (They probably had a good time, too, but don't tell their friends.) And the sneaky little geeklets who were able to get in to see Slither probably had to do so by way of the "Ice Age ticket and a sneeeeak" technique. (Damn that pesky R-rating, right kids?)
The movie has a handful of familiar faces, but none you can bank on at the box office. The premise sounds silly when it rolls out of your mouth, which makes it hard for you to answer "what's it about?" when you say "Hey, let's see Slither!" The hardcore horror fans want less comedy. Those looking for a funny flick generally avoid movies characterized as "gory." Plus, and this is something that really hurt the flick, it's not about teenagers. The only reason that Stay Alive made money and Slither did not is because one is PG-13, banal, and laden with teenagers, while the other is R-rated, actively bizarre, and filled with very good actors who share the collective misfortune of being older than, say, 17. Did the folks who lined up for last month's The Hills Have Eyes avoid Slither? Did the teens who enjoyed When a Stranger Calls have any interest in southern-fried splatter humor?
Much as I hate to say it, and as enjoyable as Slither is, it's a "DVD discovery," it's a niche-flick, it's goofy.
Someone email Universal and ask 'em why they churned out three direct-to-video sequels to Tremors. It's not because of that flick's $16 million domestic haul. And ask WB when we can expect the inevitable 2-disc Special Edition for Eight Legged Freaks, because that DVD outgrossed the theatrical run a few times over. Ask your local movie geek if they still dig Arachnophobia or Fright Night or Army of Darkness or Return of the Living Dead. I'm not necessarily saying that Slither's automatically earned a spot in this particular neighborhood, but you know it'd fit in quite nicely.
In this rather excellent Slither-centric article at The Hollywood Reporter, genre nut-job Eli Roth summed up my opinion rather succinctly: "In 15 years, nobody is going to be watching 'Ice Age: The Meltdown.' Everybody is going to be watching DVDs of 'Slither.'"
Does an executive at Gold Circle Films or Universal Pictures want to hear about "15 years from now...?" I doubt it. But I bet James Gunn still feels pretty good about it, despite his baby's disappointing debut.
Plus the thing only cost about $29 million $16 million* to make, so we're not exactly talking Pluto Nash-style losses here. And after all's said and done, who cares, really? It wasn't my $29 million $16 million, and the world now has one more DVD I'll have to buy. Actually, it's a Universal release, which means if I'm a real fan, I'll probably be seeing three different Slither DVDs before 2009.
(P.S. Shaun of the Dead made less than $14 million at the domestic box office, and I've yet to meet a person who doesn't love it. And you don't even want to know how much Re-Animator made during its theatrical run. A few years down the line, budgets and box offices mean nothing, and all we're left with is a great geeky movie that people really dig.)
(*Thanks for the budget correction, loyal readers!)