'Slither' leaves gloomy trail

Gloomy trail

Borys Kit
"Slither" threw a scare into the boxoffice this weekend, but it was not exactly the shock that its creators were hoping to achieve. This year, such horror movies as "Hostel," "When a Stranger Calls" and "Final Destination 3" have enjoyed a bloody good run at the boxoffice -- bowing in first or second place with opening weekends around the $20 million mark.

So it came as bit of a shock to horrorphiles that "Slither," produced by Gold Circle Films and released by Universal Pictures, mustered no better than an eighth-place opening last weekend, grossing just $3.7 million. Adding insult to injury, "Slither," one of the best-reviewed horror movies in years, had to take a back seat to "Stay Alive," Buena Vista's PG-13 film, which took in $4.4 million in its second weekend for a seventh-place showing.

"We were crushingly disappointed," Gold Circle president Paul Brooks said.

So what happened?

In retrospect, Brooks said that the movie's split focus was the key factor in its boxoffice downfall. Written and directed by James Gunn, the movie was an R-rated horror movie and a comedy, following Elizabeth Banks and Nathan Fillion in the roles of small-town residents fighting off alien slugs, zombies and other creatures. "Slither" also was an homage to old-fashioned B-movies.

"I think that because it was comedy-horror instead of pure horror is where the problem lay," Brooks said. "It's the first comedy-horror in a long time, and maybe the marketplace just isn't ready for comedy-horror yet. It's difficult to think of other explanations."

"This was a conscious attempt on everyone's part not to simply put another entry into the horror category but to try something different," Universal president of marketing Adam Fogelson said. "This movie was an attempt to bring a new genre or a subgenre into the public eye. This movie took a great swing to try to bring that genre into fashion."

Fogelson said there is a vast difference between comedy horror and horror and "to judge it against more traditional horror fare is not doing this movie justice."

The blending of the two tones has never been a slam-dunk, though when done right, they do strike a chord with critics and pop culture. John Landis combined the two in 1981's "An American Werewolf in London," grossing $30.6 million -- a solid number at the time, with the movie ranking as that year's 23rd top domestic grosser.

But more recently, hybrid horror movies have faced resistance as theatrical releases. In 1990, "Tremors," about giant worms in the Southwest, bowed to just $3.7 million and grossed $15.5 million. That movie eventually was embraced by fans and critics, however, and became a minifranchise, spawning a series of direct-to-video sequels.

In 2002, "Eight Legged Freaks" tried to capture audiences with its web of chills and laughs, but had an opening weekend of only $6.5 million and a $17.3 million domestic gross.

Those examples suggested that "Slither" faced an uphill fight.

"It was always a risky film," a Universal insider said. "The whole issue was, who is the audience for this movie? When it's a straight genre movie, you know the audience. Nobody knew if there was an audience for a horror-comedy. What this essentially proved is that there is no audience for horror-comedies."

In fact, "Slither," which according to sources had a sticker price of $29.5 million, might have killed off the horror-comedy genre for the near future.

"Horror-comedies are a tough sell," said Eli Roth, who directed the hard-core horror entries "Cabin Fever" and "Hostel." "There are core groups of fans that love them, but it seems like that the majority of people, when they want to go see a scary movie, they don't want to laugh, they just want to be straight up scared and horrified." Roth added that the negative responses he has received for his movies have mostly been directed at their humorous elements. One reason he made "Hostel" as hardcore as he did, he said, was that modern audiences seem to want to push themselves to see how much horror they can stand.

The demise of "Slither" already has attracted a noisy debate among horror fans on the Internet.

"The horror Web sites are chiding the fans for bitching and complaining that they never get original horror and then not coming out to support it opening weekend," Roth said. "The horror fans are an interesting bunch: They complain about remakes, then flock to them."

Still, if history is any indication, "Slither" could rise from the dead to find an afterlife in home video and ancillary markets.

"In 15 years, nobody is going to be watching 'Ice Age: The Meltdown.' Everybody is going to be watching DVDs of 'Slither,' " Roth said.