Thursday, February 18, 2010

Some Things You're Never Gonna Understand

It probably makes sense that if you keep seeing enough movies then sooner or later you’re going to stumble across the funniest James Caan movie that no one has ever heard of, not to mention the greatest role that Sally Kellerman ever had. As a result you wind up wondering what kept you from seeing it a long time ago. The tape was sitting there in Jerry’s Video all those years I rented from them but Jerry’s is gone now so I had to go seek this film out elsewhere. The unexpected pleasures of SLITHER, released in 1973, begin immediately after the MGM lion roars with character actor Richard B. Shull singing an incessantly upbeat version of “Happy Days Are Here Again”, clearly remembering every single word of every single verse. Meanwhile, James Caan sits beside him clearly not believing a word of it and as things start to happen to him we see why. There’s very little point in trying to explain the charms of SLITHER so maybe I shouldn’t even bother writing this. After a protracted start that barely makes it clear what kind of movie this is going to be, not getting to the opening credits until nearly ten minutes in, the film’s charms begin to sneak up in a way that is totally unexpected and it becomes more and more disarming by the minute. The tone is always slightly goofier than you expect but somehow grounded at the same time until the thing is suddenly over and you almost want to say, “What the hell was that? Can I please watch it again immediately?” Somehow light on plot and enormously complicated at the same time, SLITHER is the sort of film that could have killed its comic approach with too heavy a hand but pulls off the balance just right. I’m still smiling from whole stretches of the movie and I wish I could organize a party around getting people to see it for the first time now that I have.

Released from prison after a two year stretch, car thief Dick Kanipsia (James Caan) is traveling with buddy Harry Moss (Richard B. Shull) also just released. Intending to stop by Harry’s place just to have a beer, there celebration is halted by gunfire and before expiring Harry is able to give Dick two names—one, Barry Fenaka, who he’s supposed to track down and two, Vincent Palmer, the name he’s supposed to give Fenaka. Dick tracks down Barry (Peter Boyle) and his wife Mary (Louise Lasser) and they soon set out on the road with Fenaka’s Airstream to retrieve the money that Harry and Barry once embezzled and is now being held elsewhere by a third party. Also figuring into things is the awesomely named Kitty Kopetzky (Sally Kellerman) who Dick encounters out on the road and is even crazier than she looks, not to mention the mysterious black van that seems to be following Dick wherever he goes. There are other things I could reveal, entire pages of dialogue I could quote, but there’s no fun in giving it away.

Certainly one of the best films to ever have a key suspense sequence set at a Bingo game, SLITHER (no relation to the 2006 film directed by James Gunn) is a road movie that is never in much of a rush to get anywhere which turns out to be ok by me, considering how much fun it is to not be in any kind of rush. The directorial debut of Howard Zieff (later behind the likes of PRIVATE BENJAMIN) and written by W.D. Richter (later the writer of the screenplays for INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ’78 and the immortal BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) SLITHER barely has a moment that isn’t unexpectedly engaging in some way, creeping up on you with details that may or may not be important until later on but while trying to figure these things out you begin laughing almost before you realize it. There’s not even really that much to say about the film—it would be better if you discovered all its surprises for yourself—and in that sense it’s extremely slight, minor, a movie where barely anything of note seems to happen, but who cares. It’s about the tiny pleasures that build up, the characters which first appear to be suspicious yet suddenly, without warning, become likable. And sometimes the likable ones become suspicious.

There’s so much to enjoy throughout---the way Peter Boyle’s character loves listening to the swing music that he had transferred from old 78s to 8-track tapes, how every single nutso line out of Sally Kellerman’s mouth is something unexpected, the banal villainy of every guy we see wearing a short sleeve button down shirt, the exasperation of James Caan as he wonders why no one ever seems to listen to him. Then there’s the recurring bad guy music that comes onto the soundtrack every time that black van drives onscreen which gets funnier every single time it happens. It’s close to the halfway mark before the plot bothers to kick in, if it ever even does. And it doesn’t matter. Why is it called SLITHER? Aside from that it just kind of slithers along, not in any hurry, beats me. In the end, SLITHER isn’t about much more than how the world is one giant nuthouse and the people who look the most normal are probably the ones you need to watch out for the most--maybe watch out for the ones who look crazy as well, just in case. And even that is probably a stretch. The happy days you may be waiting to be here again may never come and all that may be left is to travel down the road encountering every nutcase out there. Which is good enough for me. It’s hard not to think that the Coen Brothers are big fans (Harlan Ellison loved it as well) and like their best comedies, it doesn’t provide big laughs so much as a general stream of laughter that becomes gradually bigger as the ongoing repetitions build up. Why this film doesn’t have more of a cult following is a mystery, one of those strange quirks of fate that makes about as much sense as anything that happens during the full 97 minutes before it drifts off and we wonder what the hell we just saw. It must play great with a crowd.

The film has an amazing cast with each playing along with things in an unpredictable manner. James Caan works his slow burn to fantastic effect, coming off as likable and believably exasperated. When he says, “I don’t know how to deal with you…You’re goddamn crazy!” to Kellerman it comes off as the most natural thing in the world because, well, she is. Sally Kellerman has probably the best role of her career as that crazy person, driving barefoot, popping pills, eating junk food and possibly some sort of witch but you can barely follow what she says at any given moment (“There's this battle going on inside me. The forces of evil against the forces of light. I'll swing with the winner.”). The actress freely bungee jumps into this mundane insanity with expert precision and attacks every nutso line she has with huge amounts of relish. She’s hugely sexy in the role as well, making her physical aggressiveness part of her very being even when she’s just sitting down. Boyle (who worked with Zieff again on 1989’s THE DREAM TEAM) keeps a few strands of hair combed over his bald head and correctly maintains the correctly screwy balance of not making it certain how much you can trust this guy. Lasser, whose character prefers to ride in the Airstream, has a few endearing moments where she tells Caan about the crush she had on him in high school and Shull (one of the best things in Zieff’s remake of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS years later) brings some quirky humanity into his brief role at the start. Allen Garfield (in his second straight film on this site) makes a crucial appearance as someone with information on the mysterious Vincent Palmer and Alex Rocco plays the key role of “Man With Ice Cream”, sharing the screen with James Caan just as he would in FREEBIE AND THE BEAN but not, of course, in THE GODFATHER.

Watching some of it again, I find myself loving just hanging out with these characters, as ridiculous as they are, and listening to this oddball dialogue as it drifts out, not caring if we respond or not. (“We’re being followed.” “Where?” “Where? Behind us.”) Zieff handles this tonally in an expert manner (there’s an incessantly catchy score by Tom McIntosh as well) but it feels like much of the credit should go to Richter for his screenplay with gobs of continually funny and unexpected dialogue. Not to mention the turns in the plot which at times feel more like accidental stumbles by the characters who can’t figure out what’s going on any more than we can. (I don’t know if there’s much to tie this film into BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA aside from Richter, but anyone who loves that film should seek out SLITHER immediately) All the elements come together as if it were being performed by a finely tuned company, everyone in synch with each other. The final result is filled with pleasures and yet the feeling it gives off of wanting to get out there on the road and keep moving fits right in with the road films of the early 70s. Shortly after one of its characters exclaims ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ near the end we hear that familiar wind that could be associated with films of this time, the one that you hear out on those long stretches highway that feel like they go on forever. The wind is out there, the happy days are out there, but they’ll probably always pass you by as you keep on looking for it. A twisted flipside to all the other early 70s road films which makes it the ideal chaser to follow something like TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, FIVE EASY PIECES or SCARECROW on a double bill, SLITHER is a huge surprise to finally catch up with on the long road of movies, mostly hidden away from the world on some forgotten stretch of highway but still there to provide pleasures for anyone willing to seek it out.


Jeffrey Goodman said...

I haven't seen this one but sounds great! I lived in Los Feliz, too, for 6+ years and also used to frequent Jerry's. I didn't realize it had closed. When did that happen? What a great place it was!

le0pard13 said...

"... not to mention the greatest role that Sally Kellerman ever had."

Really? Better than 'Hot Lips' O'Houlihan from MASH? And it's written by the same guy who wrote "the immortal BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA"? You definitely have got my attention, Mr. Peel. But, unless the New Beverly Cinema or American Cinematheque puts it on their calendars (locally), the pricey Warner Archive will be the only way to view this. I just checked TCM and they, too, don't have it on their schedule.

After doing all of this checking, now I really want to see this! Criminy! Thanks, Mr. Peel.

christian said...

It's well worth the price. A great 70's comedy loopy classic. Harlan Ellison gave it a rave in the day. Great piece.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Jerry's closed down in September 2007, basically selling off its stock in the process. I still miss it. Here's a piece I wrote about the store and the closing at the time:


I'm gonna say it--Yes, better than Hot Lips O'Houlihan! It's so much fun and she is amazing. I did notice that the Warner Archive is selling it but for me that's going to have to wait. I wonder if there's a 35mm print available to be screened, it would be great if there was. For the record, I rented it on tape from Eddie Brandt's in North Hollywood. They've got a few things there on VHS that I've been meaning to get around to. Hope you get to see SLITHER one of these days.


Thanks very much Christian! Glad you're also a fan of it!

Uncle Gustav said...

"Then there’s the recurring bad guy music that comes onto the soundtrack every time that black van drives onscreen which gets funnier every single time it happens."

Listen closely and you'll recognize it's "Mary Had a Little Lamb".

As the bingo caller says, "I told you everything would be gay, gay, gay!"

A perennial co-feature back in the day (it must've been a cheap rental for the dollar venues), Slither played theatrically for a couple of years. I wrote about it last year for a blogathon concerning movies then missing on DVD. (Slither is now available from Warner Archives.) You can read my two cents by clicking here.

Griff said...

Excellent review.

It didn't play that great with a crowd -- I recall much of the audience regarding the picture with a collective "what-th" -- but I loved this shaggy road movie from its tentative beginning to its ridiculous, difficult to describe end and have never forgotten it. I'm not certain Caan has given a surer, more relaxed performance since. Kellerman is just fabulous; it's a pity she never had a subsequent role (or opportunity) quite like this one. Boyle is priceless; when he disappears from the film for a time, you really regret it -- you miss him. Laszlo Kovacs' lush location photography is a tremendous asset to the picture. Howard Zieff came out of an impressive print and TV advertising background (he created and directed some of the great Alka Seltzer spots of the '60s). He brought a nice oddball feel and strong visual sense to this and his later HEARTS OF THE WEST.

A thought: watching the film again recently, I can't but wonder whether MGM economized on the movie at some point late in post. Barry talks proudly about all the swing music he transferred from his rare 78s to 8-tracks, even identifying some of the recordings and bands. But all we hear are re-recordings -- and they were re-recordings in the 1973 theatrical release print as well.

Hungover or used up in the '70s, I used to walk home occasionally softly singing all those verses of "Happy Days Are Here Again." Rest in Peace, Richard B. Shull.

Jeffrey Goodman said...

Great piece on Jerry's. Wow, reading that really takes me back. I can't tell you how many tapes I rented from there and how many hours I spent just browsing the aisles. I'll miss it, too!

Remember John the other guy in there? He was a character, too.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Sonofabitch, it is "Mary Had A Little Lamb". Now I love the movie even more. Thanks for passing on your link, it was great reading other thoughts on it.


Thanks for your great comments. I still would kind of like to see it with a crowd though, even if they did wind up scratching their heads.

Possible penny-pinching on the swing music honestly didn't occur to me but I did notice that at least a little of this road movie did seem to be shot around L.A. Right next door to Allen Garfield's office is the bar Torchy's which later became famous from being used in 48 HRS. And the shopping center where they stop to do laundry is in Sherman Oaks (identified on a sign) on Van Nuys Blvd. The basic layout of the place is still the same today.

And, yes, Richard B. Shull was fantastic.


Thank you very much, I loved browsing through those aisles as well. I'd probably know John if I saw him but aside from Jerry never really knew their names!

Mapeel said...

I have not seen this film. But the title made me think of the 1973 CLASSIC movie, SSSSS, staring Srtother Martin and Dirk Benedict. I saw this as a child, and that image of Benedict morphing into a King Cobra is seared into my brain.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Mrs. Peel--

I've always heard about that film but have never seen it. Sounds like something that would play on the 4:30 movie back in the day. I've added it to my Netflix queue.

Anonymous said...

Great write-up. Slither is my second-favorite movie of all time.

10-12 years ago, I was able to use Richard B. Shull in a radio spot. (Just a year before he pased away.) He was terrific, of course. It was worth the whole thing to be able to tell him how much I loved this movie.

Joe Martino said...


I forwarded your article to W. D. Richter and he was blown away by it...he in turn passed it along to Howard's widow, whom he felt should see it as well...great job as usual..

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Much appreciated. That's wonderful that you got to tell Shull. It's fantastic that he's gone before the opening credits yet he completely stays with you long after you've seen the film. Thanks again.


Now I'm speechless. Absolutely speechless. I can't tell you the amount of admiration I have for Richter and his work through the years. Now Richard Shull singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" really is bouncing through my brain. All my thanks to you for passing it along!