Barry Fenaka? Vincent Palmer? “I told you everything would be gay, gay, gay.”
James Caan as Dick Kanipsia
(click to enlarge)
While I can barely keep up with my Netflix queue (now hovering around three hundred titles), the concept of wanting more seems like shameful gluttony. But there is one movie I’d like to have in my collection, out of nostalgia more than anything else: Slither. No, not the horror film from 2006, but the movie from 1973 that has its own share of monsters and snakes: jittery investors, chain-smoking bingo callers and sweaty, sax-wielding lodge brothers.
Like so much product of the time, it defies easy classification. Is it a comedy? Road picture? Crime thriller? Well, yes and no on all counts. One thing is certain: Slither thumbs its nose, ostensibly at America itself. Part of that wide canvas included its distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the once-reigning king of the studio system. By the late 1960s they were crumbling under the weight of their own archaic pedigree. Pictures were embracing realism, stars lost their glamour — a black era for a studio known for frilly designer daydreams.
Commercial American cinema of the pre-Star Wars 1970s generally consisted of road movies or car chase movies, genres connected by asphalt, illustrating radical changes in the zeitgeist. As Albert Brooks would echo years later in Lost in America, people abandoned their comfy homes of Eisenhower and Camelot to ‘find’ themselves on an existential interstate. That they’d end up milking huge corporations into the current Recession should tell you what all that faux Kerouac soul-searching was truly about.
James Caan made Slither between The Godfather (1972) and Cinderella Liberty (1973): his l’age d’or. He plays an ex-con tipped off about ‘wealth beyond your wildest dreams’ by Richard B. Shull, before the latter blows himself up with TNT over beers and a TV golf match. At which point it may be important to jot down names: Caan is Dick Kanipsia, Shull is Harry Moss. Moss instructs Dick to find Barry Fenaka (Peter Boyle, fresh from Steelyard Blues) and give him the name of Vincent J. Palmer (Allen Garfield of Cry Uncle! infamy), who is holding the loot: $312,000 from an old embezzlement scheme. In the meantime, Barry’s wife Mary (Louise Lasser, three years shy of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) had a crush on Dick in high school. But Dick’s hooked up with Kitty Kopetsky, a wired drifter played by Sally Kellerman in what threatens to be the apex of her fascinating career.
You got all that?
Most of the era’s road movies reached some form of epiphany, but not Slither. Dick and Barry and Mary travel the road in Barry’s bloated rig, a block-long Chrysler towing a trailer (where Mary holes up, smoking and doing crossword puzzles) with a mysterious black van in pursuit. There’s a scene in a laundromat where Kitty waxes philosophical on pubic hair, a showdown with bad guys in a trailer park bingo hall, and Moe Green himself, Alex Rocco, licking away at three ice cream cones in unison. Dick shoves a pickle in Palmer’s potato salad. The sex scene — didn’t every 70s movie have to have one? — has Kitty and Dick sitting on a bed with her warning, “You try to rape me, buster, and I’ll empty your circuits.”
It was labeled a shaggy dog story, which is partially true, and it had some critics wondering what director Howard Zieff would do next. He’d come from TV commercials, as the creator of such chestnuts as “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levi’s” and “Mama Mia, that’s a spicy meatball!” After Slither he made Hearts of the West, a sincere if hollow valentine to 1930s b-movies, followed by House Calls, The Main Event and Private Benjamin, not one remotely similar to Slither. W.D. Richter wrote Slither, and I’m inclined to credit him for its quirky humor and conscious lack of balance. Richter also floundered in mediocrity, but he did write the excellent 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a shaggy pod story.
MGM released it on VHS in 1994, so at least they’re aware it exists. I’d love Slither on DVD… for Sally’s breakdown in the truck stop diner… to glimpse those six packs of ‘Beer’ brand beer… to hear those ominous bass notes on the soundtrack signaling the black vans, a tune both familiar and distant: “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” a portent of things to come.