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Slither
(1973)

Director: Howard Zieff 
Cast:
James Caan, Peter Boyle, Sally Kellerman


I like to think of myself as a well educated man. First I started off in nursery school, entered kindergarten not that long afterwards, and then took the sometimes painful path of continuing through the next twelve grades. Then I spent several years in post-secondary education, eventually managing to secure a bachelor's degree in my chosen area. But as I was going through that long and tedious path to make my way to that ultimate reward, I learned early on that there were some lessons you wouldn't learn in a classroom. For one thing, when I roamed the streets at night, I learned how to steal and I learned how to fight. (In the ghetto.) But all kidding aside, I really found that I learned a lot of things through my great love of television and the movies, lessons that more often that not struck my mind right away and stuck with me right to the present day. For example, what I really learned about stealing from movies was that people who stole anything before the year 1968 always seemed to be punished one way or another for their crime. The same thing when it came to the crime of murder. Though I later learned that the Motion Picture Production Code happened to be abolished in that particular year. But certainly I watched a lot of movies and television shows made after 1968, and I learned a lot about certain crimes - namely how difficult it seemed to pull off certain crimes. For one thing, I learned that even if you pulled off a murder while managing to give yourself what seemed to be an air tight alibi, an annoying little man wearing a raincoat despite the weather being clear and sunny would slowly poke holes into your so-called perfect scheme, and soon enough you would have to face the music.

Then there was the act of robbery. Though lessons learned then and now, I have learned that you have to be really good at robbery if you don't want to get caught from safeguards ranging from cameras to alarms. Anyway, movies and television shows have been a great way for me to avoid getting myself in a situation that would almost certainly land me in jail. But at the same time, I have to admit that movies and television have deceived me on several certain topics. One of these topics is the pursuit of concealed treasure. When I was young, I saw the pursuit of treasure on the screen too many times to count. It lead me to believe that there was treasure everywhere, and with a little luck and some patience one would come across a secret cache of riches for themselves. It even got me in my younger days to dig a hole in the middle of my local wilderness in the hope of coming across a box of wealth. But as I got older, it slowly started to dawn on me that the whole idea of treasure hunting - with maybe the exception of those exploring sunken galleons on the bottom of the ocean - was just a crock of spit. One early lesson that I learned was that the idea that pirates buried the riches they gathered was started by the Robert Louis Stevenson book Treasure Island. Real life pirates did not bury their treasure - why would they? If you have amassed a fortune, would you just stick it in the ground and hope that nobody would come across it? Of course not - you would keep it with you and start spending it on various luxuries as well as proper protection so that nobody would take your newly gained wealth away.

Although I eventually learned that the silver screen's portrayal of the idea of caches of wealth being everywhere and waiting to be found was simply not true, at the same time I learned from these same movies that the prospect of finding hidden wealth, if it were ever true, would more lSlitherikely present itself as a difficult task. There always seems to be at least one other party after a treasure in the movie, and that can present some major problems. Often the problem is that the other party is homicidal. Though even in treasure movies that are lighter in tone like It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the other pursuing party or parties can be a real pain in the butt. In the end, I learned one other thing about treasure hunting - stick to watching movies about it instead of doing it for yourself. Sometimes you can find real gems - "real gems" of course meaning well done enough cinematic efforts. That's what I found with Slither, but before getting into its quality any more, first a rundown on its plot. The main character of the movie is one Dick Kanipsia (Caan, Santa's Slay), a cheap crook who has just finished a two year jail sentence. Dick is accompanied by his prison friend Harry (Richard B. Shull, Cockfighter), and the two men head to Harry's home in the country. But not long after reaching their destination, Harry's home is riddled by bullets from unknown gunmen outside, and Harry gets a fatal wound. Just before he dies, Harry tells Dick that there is a fortune in stolen loot he has kept hidden all this time, and gives Dick two names of people who know where the loot is hidden. Dick manages to escape from the gunmen, and while he's on the road tracking down one of the men Harry mentioned, he has a strange encounter with a kooky woman named Kitty (Kellerman, The Mouse And His Child). After fleeing from Kitty, Dick finally tracks down one of the two men Harry mentioned, one Barry Fenaka (Boyle, Everybody Loves Raymond). Naturally Barry is excited by the chance to get some loot, so the two men along with Barry's wife Mary (Louise Lasser, Frankenhooker) set on the road to track down the second person Harry had mentioned in his dying words. A wrench is thrown into the works when Kitty reappears and joins the trio, but that may be the least of the trio's problems since they don't know they are being followed cross country by mysterious drivers in black vans...

With a plot setup like this, especially with an opening sequence that involves someone being gunned down (and a climax that involves vehicle chases and more gunfire), one might think that Slither would most likely go down the route of being an action or suspense thriller. Actually, that is not the case. Instead, the movie goes down a path that is lighter in nature for a great deal of the running time. I'm not saying that the movie can be labelled an out and out comedy. To be true, there are some moments that provoke genuine laughter. There's a funny sequence when Dick and Kitty go to a roadside diner, and when Dick excuses himself to go to the washroom, upon his return he finds Kitty has pulled out a gun and is robbing the place. Later in the movie, when Dick spots the two following black vans parked nearby and decides to investigate them, he has an encounter with a character played by Alex Rocco (Bonnie's Kids) that starts out routine and seems to be leading to the explanation desired by Dick, but is capped by an unexpected and hilarious revelation. And towards the end of the movie, Dick finds himself stalked by the bad guys at a campsite, which might sounds serious, but all the characters find themselves stuck at a bingo tournament at the campsite - not exactly a place where even a master of suspense like Alfred Hitchcock could make to be creepy. But in the end, there are very few moments that are designed to be laugh out loud funny. The tone of the movie may be best described as a mix of seriousness with quirkiness, resulting in the audience watching the movie with one long smile instead of chortling here and there.

Slither makes that one big smile on the lips of the audience primarily by one technique - with its eccentric characters. For the most part, the movie does not make its characters extremely kooky or scenery chewers. Only Sally Kellerman's Kitty character might be considered to be off her rocker to some degree. But the screenplay by W. D. Richter (who later wrote the screenplay for the offbeat Big Trouble In Little China) wisely does not make the character totally crazy. The character is shown here and there to show feelings we can relate to, like being somewhat upset when her car breaks down. The character also is given a chance to help the other protagonists out, so clearly she has some brains. Kellerman gives this balanced character the right attitude in every scene she's in, so we can believe Kitty's unpredictable behavior and can smile at it when the occasion warrants it. The rest of the cast also does well in their roles. Peter Boyle makes his Barry character a likable fellow, doing well with his scripted character quirks such as Barry's love for big band music. He also manages to sell his character's occasional lapses into stupidity, like when he forgets that while being held at gunpoint with his own gun that the gun is unloaded. Not every actor could convince us of something like that. Louise Lasser is sweet as Barry's wife who had a crush on Dick back in high school and still has fondness for him, which leads to moments that the audience can relate to and smile about. As for James Caan, he plays the most "normal" person in the movie. Caan plays his character completely straight, which I think was the right choice. We in the audience throughout can believe how this character reacts to others and how he thinks, and his character's subsequent actions always seem to be the actions that we would take if we were in his place. We like him, and we smile some more.

While the screenplay for Slither and the actors in the movie certainly deserve their share of credit for the movie's success, praise also has to go to another force behind the camera, director Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin). From the beginning of the movie it's clear that he's putting his own stamp on scene after scene. Not heavy stamps, but little quirks here and there. For example, in the opening scene he has the character of Harry sing "Happy Days Are Here Again" with just the right tone of softness that it's charming. Seconds later, when the conductor on the train Harry and Dick are riding insists that Harry get his feet off the seat in front of them, as soon as the conductor leaves, Harry abruptly puts his feet back up. Also, Zieff takes a potential liability and makes it an asset. It's clear that the enterprise was a low budget production, but Zieff uses the limited funds wisely. He chose locations throughout that look isolated and dusty, though at the same time not giving the audience a "wide" view of them. As a result, the characters in these scenes stand out more, with nothing to distract our observation of them. Which is appropriate, because this movie is one that is driven by its characters instead of production values. There is one part of the movie that Zieff can't do anything with, however, and that is with the revelations near the end that concern the people in the black vans following the protagonists. The explanation didn't make much sense to me, something that Zieff may have realized since he has the explanation spoken really fast as if he were trying to hide the fact that it didn't make sense. But while the revelations in the final minutes may be disappointing, fortunately the first ninety or so minutes of the movie are charmingly offbeat enough to bring enjoyment to any viewer that has an appetite for quirky movies coming out of this era in American cinema. The title Slither might be another quirky touch, since for the life of me I can't think of any other explanation for the movie having that title.

(Posted February 28, 2017)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Interstate 60, Treasure Of The Lost Desert, Your Three Minutes Are Up

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