Slugs (1988)

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We know from the very title of Slugs, adapted from Shaun Hutson’s 1982 novel of the same name, what is coming (its full Spanish title even included the wonderful phrase muerte viscosa, or ‘slimy death’) – and yet director and co-writer (with Ron Gantman) Juan Piquer Simón opens his film with a scene that signposts a different influence. Two young lovers are on a fishing dinghy in the middle of a lake. “This is boring – let’s go swimming or something”, suggests the girl, only to see her reluctant beau pulled in and devoured, yelling, as the surface bubbles and churns with his gore. The desire to go swimming, followed by a bloody death in the water, is a clear evocation of the prologue to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) – and sure enough Slugs too will feature a venal mayor (Manuel de Blas) who ignores all the signs of impending community meltdown, and an unlikely trio of men – health officer Mike Brady (Michael Garfield), sanitation supervisor Don Palmer (Philip MacHale) and high school science teacher John Foley (Santiago Álvarez) – who get down to the business of exterminating the deadly threat.

“Killers slugs, for Christ’s sake!” complains an incredulous Sheriff Reese (John Battaglia) “What’ll it be next: demented crickets? rampaging mosquitoes maybe?” It is true that flesh-eating slugs and their associated parasites, mutated by a leakage of toxic waste, might seem an improbable danger, but in fact most creatures (including cockroaches, ticks, grasshoppers and locusts) have featured at one point or another in the horror subgenre known as nature’s revenge, wherein fauna fight back to punish humans for their hubristic transgressions. Here the middle-class suburban folk of Ashton, on the point of building a new shopping centre downtown, accidentally dislodge the poisonous chemicals and gases that they had buried in the same area decades earlier, triggering a slimy uprising of gastropods that spawn and spread through the sewage system. Meanwhile the local teens, gathering for an outdoor Halloween kegger, ascribe the rising body count to a ‘goat killer’ of urban myth.

“After I’ve dealt with these slugs, what do you say we get naked and go crazy?” Don asks his wife near the end of Slugs. It is an odd line – in a film full of mannered dialogue – but the sexual appetites of Ashton’s human residents are often closely associated with the carnivorous nature of the molluscs. Two teenaged lovebirds are consumed by the slugs only after they have enjoyed one another’s bodies. When the alcoholic, amorous Maureen (Alicia Moro) flirts with her husband David (Emilio Linder), she uses the language of food as part of her seductive routine (“We’ve been eating too much red meat lately… before you go any further, you need to decide whether you want your dessert before or after the main course”). David’s fate, incidentally, is to be eaten alive from the inside by parasitic blood-flukes, after he mistakenly swallows part of a slug chopped into the salad that Maureen has made for him. Another teen is attacked by slugs only after she has escaped unwelcome erotic advances from one boy and a sexual assault from another. The film’s focus on the randiness of Ashton’s citizenry (Mike and his wife are at it too) suggests that the slugs, in all their slimy wetness and love of flesh, are an expression of this bourgeois community’s id, barely buried beneath its genteel surface.

As in his best known film, the crazy genre patchwork Pieces (1982), here Simón presides over an America-set story half of which was filmed in his native Spain, with a cast from both countries. The artifice of this, and the ‘offness’ of much of the character interaction, ensure that Slugs, though certainly a pulpy confection, compensates for its many clichés with charmingly campy eccentricity – and as ever, Simón delivers on the icky bodily destruction.

Summary: Creature feature in which the human species proves just as carnal and odd as the mutant slugs.

Anton Bitel