Tuesday, September 30, 2014

From the dusty TDOY archives: Slither (1973)

Paroled from prison after serving a stretch for car theft, easygoing Richard “Dick” Kanipsia (James Caan) agrees to stop by the B.F.E. home of fellow parolee Harry Moss (Richard B. Schull) for a beer before heading down the highway, destination to be determined.  What transpires during his visit with Harry will cement his future itinerary; no sooner have the two settled down in Moss’ living room when shots ring out and Harry is mortally wounded by an unknown assassin(s).  Calm—but clearly about to shuffle off this mortal coil—Harry tells Dick that he needs to head for a town called Fallbrook and contact one Barry Fenaka (Peter Boyle), F-E-N-A-K-A.  Mentioning the name “Vincent Palmer” will lead to financial rewards beyond Dick’s wildest dreams.

And so Mr. Kanipsia’s odyssey begins: a journey that wryly comments he was definitely better off in the joint, since the world has apparently become an asylum in the time he’s been in stir.  On his way to Fallbrook, Dick tangles with a hostile farmer (Seamon Glass) who gives him a ride, and later meets an engagingly flaky free spirit named Kitty Kopetzky (Sally Kellerman)…who decides to rob the diner the two are breakfasting in at two in the a.m.  Once making contact with Fenaka and his wife Mary (Louise Lasser), the three of them hitch up a car to Barry’s Airstream trailer and are off to contact Mr. Palmer—an adventure comprised of sinister accountants driving a pair of jet-black “Rec-V’s”; a suspenseful encounter at a bingo tent; and a shootout at a vegetable stand.

Slither (1973) was the directorial debut of Howard Zieff, who had achieved much critical acclaim as a creator of TV commercials (Alka-Seltzer, Benson-Hedges, etc.).  His movie resume was relatively brief (he stopped directing after 1994’s My Girl 2 due to the effects of Parkinson’s disease) and his best-known film is inarguably Private Benjamin (1980), the popular military farce starring Goldie Hawn.  But in the 1970s, Zieff demonstrated a deft touch for film comedy: his wistfully nostalgic Hearts of the West (1975—which airs tomorrow evening at 1:15am on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™) and acerbically romantic House Calls (1978) stand as some of the finest offerings of that era.

When I sat down with Slither yesterday, I’m pretty certain it had been over thirty years since I’d seen it; I watched it with the 'rents in their pre-Law & Order-obsession days and remembered liking the film, since its poker-faced comedy style appealed to me enormously.  I was worried that it wouldn’t hold up well…but I think I enjoyed it more on my second viewing.  It is most assuredly not for all tastes: it’s a shaggy-dog story with just a bare minimum of plot—most of the humor in the film originates in the perplexity of Caan’s protagonist Dick Kanipsia as he reacts to the various weirdoes he encounters.  Case in point: arriving at Fenaka’s, Dick has a gun pulled on him by Barry and the two of them wrestle for control of the firearm.  Once the two men have worked out their initial suspicions of one another (after Dick tells Barry of Harry’s demise), Dick is invited to meet Mrs. Fenaka…who turns out to be an old classmate of his from high school (though she was two years behind).  As the two of them reminisce, Barry has difficulty concealing his displeasure (and in the hands of Peter Boyle, this is falling-down funny).  Later, Dick and Mary go with Barry to his “job”—he’s master of ceremonies at an event honoring a war veteran (Stuart Nisbet) as “Man of the Year.”

In an August 2008 interview with Bright Lights Film Journal; actor Caan remarked on his “versatility”: “[W]hether I did that thing with Bette Midler [For the Boys, 1991], or Funny Lady [1975], or Kiss Me Goodbye [1982], people would say, ‘Jimmy, we didn't know you sang and danced.’ I said, ‘Well, nobody ever asked me.’”  Slither gave the thesp critically acclaimed at that time for his dramatic turns in Brian’s Song (1971) and The Godfather (1972) a chance to unleash his comedic chops (though you can certainly argue he generated much mirth in El Dorado)…which he indulged in such later vehicles as Cinderella Liberty (1973) and Honeymoon in Vegas (1992).  Caan’s laconic, Mitchum-like approach to portraying Dick Kanipsia makes the role one of his best acting showcases—my favorite moment in the film is when he deadpans “Listen…uh…I think I’d just as soon be sleeping in a bed when you kill us all” after witnessing Kitty’s bat-out-of-hell driving (he’s referring to bedding down in the trailer behind them).  Kellerman’s character is also a lot of fun; her theory that the sinister vans following Dick and the Fenakas are “flying saucers” made me spit out my iced tea.

Oscar nominee W.D. Richter (Brubaker) penned Slither’s script (which later inspired a TV sitcom pilot the following year, with Barry Bostwick in the Caan role); he would later adapt such favorites as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and direct the cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984).  (I never quite warmed to Banzai—it plays like a serial already in progress—but I do have much love for his sci-fi comedy Late for Dinner [1991].)  The presence of Richter might explain why some folks don’t care for Slither…though strangely enough, I remember that John Simon liked the film—and he hated anything that wasn’t in a foreign language.

As I’ve stated, Caan, Kellerman, Boyle and Lasser are all first-rate in their roles; Richard Shull is sublime as the doomed Harry, Allen Garfield plays one of the accountants with a vested interest in the Kanipsia-Fenaka fortunes and Caan’s fellow Godfather player Alex Rocco (“Moe Greene”) will make you smile as a man juggling ice cream cones whom Dick mistakes as the owner of the mysterious vans.  While I’ll freely admit Slither can’t quite sustain its premise to the end of the film (though the punchline made me laugh), it’s a nostalgic memory that I had a great deal of fun reliving.  The film is available as an MOD DVD release from the Warner Archive (please don't confuse it with the 2006 horror film of the same name).  Happy days are here again!

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