Monday, January 28, 2013

Slugs (1988) dir. Juan Piquer Simon

Logline: The sewers of a small town (formerly a toxic waste dump) are oozing flesh-eating slugs into the daily lives of the unsuspecting populace. With any luck, the county health inspector, Mike Brady (Michael Garfield), will follow the slime trail of clues back to the source in time and save the townsfolk from having their bones stripped clean by these horrific gastropods.

Animal of Choice: Thick and juicy mutant Black slugs that have graduated from plants and carrion to living human prey.

Thinking Ecologically: Wishing to pave no new ground, Slugs relies on the tired formula that films from the subgenre were employing a decade prior. The ecological catastrophe plugged in this time is that the afflicted town was built on a toxic waste dump that plastic and chemical factories contributed to throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when them dang pesky regulations were a bit looser. Somehow, the toxic waste and its gases infected a population of black slugs living and multiplying in the sewers. Post-mutation, the slugs then lash out against the careless species that created them. In addition, we have the requisite health inspector and science-y types who attempt to tell those in charge of the town about the problem only to be rebuffed and ignored in the interest of securing the town's economic betterment. Also typically, the heroes have little issue with destroying half the town to rid it of the slug menace, here by setting the sewer on fire with a combustible "lithium-based arsenic," resulting in manholes and houses throughout the town exploding in fireballs. That's certainly one way to achieve a clean ecological slate.

Thinking About Animals: Again we find a film invoking the mutant clause, allowing its filmmakers full carnivorous rein in whatever flights of fancy they would like to attach to their slug antagonists. Consequently, several attacks fail to make much sense, even when evaluated on the film's imagined slug physiology, like when a teenaged boy is (presumably) pulled off a boat by the slugs into a lake and turned into a bubbling blood geyser. How they pulled him from the boat, how they devoured him so quickly, and how they survived in a lake without drowning are mysteries we'll simply have to live with. More moments follow this opening bit of nonsense (a chopped up salad slug that lives on in the belly of a man who unknowingly swallowed it; a slug sliding into a garden glove and latching on in an unbreakable death grip to the human hand that soon enters), but as usual it's those moments of slug fact that prove most unnerving, like the existence of many rows of teeth attached to their mouths' radula and their possession of a hermaphroditic nature (their ability to self-fertilize and reproduce without a mate makes them tough to eradicate and sets us up in the film's final shot for a non-existent sequel).

Though we're shown a single slug being deadly enough, the film often relies on gathering together large numbers of the creatures in order to make them scary, which is never quite accomplished. Icky, for sure, but there's something inherently ridiculous about the notion of killer slugs, especially as late as 1988 when almost every other type of believably threatening animal had already been tackled by the subgenre. The film is aware of this, highlighting as much late in the film with a self-deprecating meta moment in which the incredulous sheriff sputters in disbelief, "Killer slugs, ferchristssakes? What'll it be next, demented crickets?"

Lastly, it must be pointed out that we've stumbled onto yet another film that's uninterested in protecting the lives of its non-human cast. A handful of real slugs are stomped, dissected, and exploded, so if such images are likely to upset you then your slug-centric thrills are best sought elsewhere. Though the carnage is minimal compared to some other of the subgenre's animal rights deniers (Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), I'm glaring at you), slugs nonetheless die in this film for entertainment purposes and that's always a suspect motivation.

Evaluation in Brief: From the director of sleazy slasher classic Pieces (1982) comes this month's first and assuredly only Animal Terror splatter film: Slugs: The Movie (that's the full title, as per the opening credits). That wily Spaniard creates a fascinating conglomeration of the two subgenres that never gels into a wholly cohesive film but nonetheless produces one delectable 90-minute piece of cinematic trash. It's rather jarring when what we've been watching up to a certain point-- a by-the-books ecological horror film in line with any of those more mundane entries from the late '70s-- explodes into fountains of gore, with scenes of a man messily hacking his own arm off with a hatchet and a diner at a restaurant vomiting blood into his wine glass before his eyeball explodes. These strange visual and tonal juxtapositions are supplemented by impressive practical effects, inane dialogue, flat acting, and prehistoric gender politics. The other European takes on the genre that I've covered this month-- Tintorera (1977), Rats - Night of Terror (1984), Tentacles (1977)-- only capture fleeting aspects of that distinctive (and oddly comforting) Eurotrash vibe. Slugs is the whole slimy package.

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