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  • nickkarner

Slugs (1988)

Lady in White (1988) is one of the most beautiful ghost stories ever made. It’s a quietly powerful film which delivers genuine scares along with a lovely, sweet tale delivered by brilliant performers. Writer/Director Frank LaLoggia’s semi-autobiographical touches bring a timeless quality to a film dripping with both nostalgia and magic. The film was shot Lyons, New York, but it just so happens that the Lady crew wasn’t the only production in the quiet northern hamlet. No, another slightly less-classy project was in full swing, helmed by a filmmaker whose penchant for the outrageous and the nonsensical vastly compensates for a certain lack of finesse or budgetary benefits. Juan Piquer Simon, the infamous director of Pieces, The Rift, and Extra Terrestrial Visitors (aka Pod People) was busy shooting his newest masterpiece. Of course, he’d use the highly anglicized J.P. Simon for his directing credit pseudonym since we all know a foreigner making a typical American disaster movie just wouldn’t be kosher, would it? While other filmmakers may have done something better or even worse, there’s no denying that Simon brings his unique and highly bizarre aesthetic to the hysterical, ineptly acted, bizarrely scored, wonderfully nasty 1988 mini-monster flick, Slugs.

Oh, I do beg your pardon. I printed the film’s title in error. Rather, it’s Slugs: The Movie, just in case one forgets as they drink in all the delicious B-movie goodness. Simon never pretended to be a great filmmaker, but he knew what people liked. Boobs and blood. Please do pardon the crudity, but these were just the sort of elements which typified releases coming from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures at the time. Although the film didn’t exactly light the world on fire (it opened in 7th place on its opening weekend), the cult around this adaptation of passionate horror and crime novelist Shaun Hutson’s 1982 novel sprang forth fully-formed thanks to the wonderful invention of VHS tapes and the beauty of word-of-mouth.

The film’s lackluster opening betrays the fact that things are going to get real crazy, real fast. Like many of Simon’s films, Slugs was an American/Spanish co-production, with many interior scenes being shot in Madrid and the exteriors in New York. I’ve always wondered why anyone who sees their friend get yanked underwater expects to be heard when they call out. I’ve gone underwater in a pool and I can’t hear a goddamn thing. Still, the film teases us as a blond bimbo threatens to remove her top while her equally blond boyfriend couldn’t care less. He’s dragged under water, just like in hundreds of other lake-based horror films, and we never see or hear from this couple again, despite a geyser of blood spewing out of the lake and legitimate questions needing to be raised.

I think it’s important to point out that Tim Souster’s kooky, chaotic score was played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Souster would return once again to the world of Simon when he scored the little-liked Cthulhu Mansion (1992). Can you imagine the musicians speaking to their families? “Where are you off to, love?” “Just going to pop ‘round to the studio and record Slugs: The Movie! Kippers for breakfast? Again?” The score varies wildly from faux-heroic marches which sound like CBS Sports coming back after their commercial break; to wonky, dread-filled dirges nearly drowned out by the cicada-like squeaking of the titular slugs. One aspect of the movie that’s particularly odd is that the film wants to be Anytown, USA, but the random Southern accents of certain characters, particularly the police, seem to indicate that the film also wants to be set in the South, but can’t quite make up its mind.

Nobody acts quite like a human being in this film. A wino stumbles around and decides to take home a dog that may or may not be his. The guy can’t afford to pay the rent but he’s got plenty of booze and rotgut along with week-old pizza to chew on then spit out. The guy’s a real slob since instead of just simply throwing the gross pizza outside, he tosses it into his basement, where we get our first look at the very black and very mean slugs. And...they look really good. Yeah, the effects work by Emilio Ruiz del Rio and Carlo De Marchis, who once claimed Simon was “as good as Spielberg,” are really quite good. They’re small, slimy, and thick. They may move slow, but I’ll take these little bastards with the amusingly vampiric teeth over the ineffectual killer worms in Squirm any day. The wino barely even lays down on his bug-infested couch before he’s quickly consumed by the little beasties.

My parents run a restaurant and they’re responsible store owners. They run a clean, reputable place that doesn’t have rodent or insect problems, so any movie that deems it necessary to make a health inspector its hero had better deliver the goods. And this movie most certainly does not. In an incredibly naïve move, the filmmakers give the name Mike Brady to their central role, making Brady Bunch jokes irresistibly easy to apply to any given situation. Brady (played with a halting stiffness by Michael Garfield, The Warriors), pretty much spends the movie getting bitched at by the town’s cantankerous asshole Sheriff Reese (John Battaglia) and banging his super-tall teacher wife Kim (Kim Terry, Rushmore) while a Bleeding Gums Murphy sax piece plays. He freaks the bitchy sheriff out by claiming the candy he eats is full of “rat shit and maggot’s eggs” as they drive to inspect the home of the wino. Why Mike is coming along, search me, but he gets to see the bloody remains, which resembles Norma Bates from Psycho, and he gets over it mighty quick. Dude acts fine a minute later. Considering how gruesome the corpse looks, I’d expect him to not only retch, but be a mess for days.

It turns out the area in which the slugs are congregating used to be a toxic waste dump 20 years ago and these meat-eating slugs are the result. This is all discovered when he and his buddy in sanitation Don (Philip MacHale, who looks like a melted Tom Berenger), answer a call from an insane, shrewish woman manhandling a poodle and complaining about a stopped-up sewer pipe and smell. Don, incidentally, is a family man, but even after he suggests getting “naked and crazy” with the much-older woman in his kitchen, I was still uncertain whether she was his wife or mother. Either, hot, HOT! Of course, nobody believes this malarky about a new “mutant form of slugs,” in the best of monster movie traditions. Sheriff Reese chuckles in his wood-paneled office about what could come next. “Demented crickets?”

Only the high school science teacher, John (Santiago Alvarez, Siesta), who inexplicably speaks with an English accent, believes them since Mike and Kim bring him a massive slug which tried to chomp on Mike’s little fingy-wingy. Some of the dubbing here is OK, all things considered, but there are some particularly rough spots that make any bits of dialogue “spoken” by some of these actors quite amusing. One gentleman who meets a grisly end is Pieces actor and Simon favorite Frank Brana, who rails against Mike and angrily informs him: “You don’t have the authority to declare Happy Birthday!” That’s hardcore right there. He later gets his guts eaten out by slugs. And honestly, that’s not even the most disgusting part of the scene. There’s a bottle of Slice on his desk!

By the way, there are teens in this film because...reasons. It’s shocking how unimportant the teen subplot is to the film. Kim is known as the “wicked bitch of the west,” a detail one of her students says quite loudly right as class ends, meaning there’s no way Kim couldn’t have heard it, yet she does nothing. It’s apparently Halloween, which is news to me since there are literally no decorations anywhere, nor does the film ever utilize the spooky holiday for anything that could benefit the plot or mood. It could be goddamn Arbor Day for all we know and it wouldn’t make a difference. We get awful hair styles (greasy mullets!) and idiotic dialogue. The only amusing character is Bobby (Kris Mann), who looks like William Katt on meth.

After his girlfriend’s parents head out, he gets a military-level signal: the porch lights are switched on-and-off. She claims her father would “have a cow” if he knew about their illicit tryst, and Bobby agrees: “Yeah, pink spots.” The fuck does that mean? They get hot and heavy, although he seriously runs the risk of whiskey dick the way he’s knocking them back, but they’re soon set upon by the slugs, who’ve assembled around the bed. Like a pussy, Bobby cringes on the bed while she falls over and gets consumed by the creepy crawlies. There’s a wonderful effect where one of her eyes has already been eaten away and the worm-like slugs are wriggling around in there as she reaches for Bobby. He tries to crawl out, but to no avail. Later, at the crime scene, all of the slugs have disappeared. How? You mean to tell me ALL OF THEM just headed out at the same time? Are they part of a union? Was it Miller time?

Mike and Kim’s friends are chronic alcoholic Maureen (Alicia Moro, The Exterminators of the Year 3000) and business guy McDoofus David (Emilio Linder, another Simon favorite, also Scalps by Fragasso/Mattei). A drunk Maureen fails to notice the rather large slug embedded in the head of lettuce she chops up for dinner. I guess she’s on a liquid diet because she doesn’t appear to get sick, but David sure does. He’s unable to indulge in a little hanky panky with his wife, who’s probably wearing beer goggles at this point. Like most of the women in this film, Maureen is either shrewish, horny, or very stupid.

Despite his stomach issues, he makes it to his meeting at an incongruously chic local eatery and manages to get the visiting parties’ business. Everything is going swimmingly until his nose starts bleeding profusely into his drink and he falls on the ground, convulsing. One of his eyes explodes in a spray of blood and squirming baby slugs. It’s an outstandingly gory scene. What’s even more shocking is that the people at the table still end up signing their deal thanks to the prodding of the obviously crooked mayor, but we never see them get any comeuppance. Oh, and what about Maureen and the fact that she’s now a widow? Nah, this movie doesn’t have time for that.

Another excellent bit of gore and mayhem comes along when an older couple with an indoor greenhouse get attacked. Well, point in fact, only the husband gets bitten and the wife is more-or-less in the wrong place at the wrong time. He pops his gloves on and the film cleverly solves the problem of keeping an unconvincing slug on an actor’s hand by having it be in the glove, which now won’t come off. He thrashes about and practically destroys everything around him. He finally decides chop his own hand off. She runs in and an electrical cord sets off a fire and the entire greenhouse goes up in an inexplicably large explosion.

There’s a stupid party scene that means nothing, of course. The film idiotically decides to throw a near-rape into the mix and to make matters even worse, the almost-victim falls over near a sewer pipe and gets devoured by the slugs. What the hell is this movie trying to say here?

Science guy John joins Mike and Don in a plan to eradicate the slugs. The scenes inside the sewer are realistically shot by Julio Bragado, who would shoot Simon’s next three features. John mixes up a drum of lithium-based arsenic which will eradicate the slugs, even though it would be just as effective to use fire or some other kind of accelerant. They manage to electrocute a bunch of slugs, which is evident by the animated, Frankenstein-style electrical currents. Unfortunately, Don falls into a boiling vat and despite the monkey-like efforts of Mike, he’s unable to save him.

Mental note, never saddle the nerd with a physically laborious job. John struggles to get the manhole cover open. Sheriff Reese shows up for absolutely no reason, doesn’t help with the cover, and Mike somehow gets it open himself. They douse the little bastards and fry ‘em. There are unnecessarily huge explosions which spread out across the entire town, likely causing more damage and deaths than the slugs, but whatever. More weird music, and a slug is left alive down in the sewer. One imagines that since we learned slugs are hermaphroditic, it’s probably saying, “Well, I guess I’ll just go fuck myself then.”

On a technical level, Slugs is a real step-up for Simon. The film moves at a solid pace thanks to editing by Richard Rabjohn, who would also edit Irwin Allen’s insane TV movie Alice in Wonderland, and the film’s production design is simple, but efficient. That's not to say some of the sets aren’t downright ugly, covered in drab colors or just plain tacky artwork. The real problem is the flat acting and unnatural dialogue provided by Simon and his regular collaborators Juan Antonio Escriva and Ron Gantman. It’s terrible, but also unintentionally funny. Despite these issues, the film is rarely dull and the makeup effects and well-constructed finale make this a worthy entry in cult director Juan Piquer Simon’s filmography.


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