Slotherhouse is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Sometimes, you see a movie that just makes you thankful movies exist at all.
I mean, movies are incredibly hard to make: They're ridiculously expensive, and each one involves years of hard work and dedication, and you need to marshal and mobilize a veritable army of people to get them done. Making movies is always a preposterous folly, and I suspect every filmmaker has, at some point in the process, asked themselves whether it was really worth the trouble. So I think those of us who couldn't do it should take a moment, every once in a while, to appreciate and wonder at those with the vision, the wherewithal, and the essential touch of madness to see it through.
Jean-Luc Godard (among others) said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. That may be broadly true, but blessed are the filmmakers who realize the dramatic possibilities of having a girl with a gun face off against a sloth with a sword, and then have the commitment to see that dream through to fruition. Such visionaries are behind the new horror-comedy Slotherhouse (2023), and they said, ahead of the premiere, that the film "has been a labor of love for our family over the last seven years, and we’re so thrilled to see it finally get out into the world.”
Seven years, a cast of dozens, a crew of hundreds, and millions of dollars: all for a 93-minute feature about a serial-killing sloth in a sorority house.
They thought it was worth it.
And you know what? It was.
I love the movies.
In Slotherhouse, Lisa Ambalavanar plays Emily, a college senior who dreams of becoming president of her sorority, Sigma Lamda Theta, as her late mother was before her. But Emily is a long-shot candidate. A sweet soul, she lacks the killer instinct—and, with only a few hundred Instagram followers, the political clout—to unseat reigning mean-girl queen-bee Brianna (Sydney Craven).
Then a chance meeting with an exotic animal poacher (Stefan Kapicic) provides Emily with the secret weapon every dark-horse political campaign needs: a three-toed tree sloth. Soon, this adorable attention magnet and meme-ready social media star—which Emily christens "Alpha," and introduces as the house mascot—is boosting Emily's popularity through the roof.
There's just one minor problem: unbeknownst to Emily, Alpha is a cute, cuddly, conniving killing machine. Her favorite and most reliable weapons are her lethal four-inch claws, but she's not above smothering girls with a pillow, pushing them off the balcony, or arranging a mass electrocution event in the showers. (Surprisingly computer-literate, Alpha even manages to order a conveniently timed pizza, just so the delivery driver can show up to run over someone annoying.)
As may be clear by now, Slotherhouse is completely ridiculous, in the best and most charming ways. Written by Bradley Fowler and Cady Lanigan, and directed by Matthew Goodhue, the film knows exactly what it is and wants to be, and commits to that vision completely. There are homages to—and outright swipes from—other horror movies sprinkled throughout Alpha's rampage of carnage, but the Chucky movies—directly referenced with a name-drop—are probably the closest in terms of the film's gleefully absurdist tone.
(Unlike the Chucky franchise, however—which had an elaborate mythology about the soul of a serial killer being trapped in a child's doll—Slotherhouse feels no obligation to offer any explanation for Alpha's psychopathic nature or preternatural abilities: She just happens to be a brilliant and sadistic sloth who can drive a car and post taunting selfies of her kills to Instagram. You're either willing to go along with it and enjoy the ride, or else you're in the wrong movie.)
Slotherhouse deftly walks a seemingly impossible-to-navigate line between playing its material straight and acknowledging its absolute absurdity. It is a slasher film—and Alpha racks up a significant body count through an impressive variety of methods—but Goodhue keeps the worst of the violence off-screen. (There will undoubtedly be horror fans who lament the lack of real scares and gore in this PG-13 film, but tipping the needle an inch from camp towards carnage would have been fatal to the film's delicate comedic charm.)
The cast—largely British and European actresses, playing American, in a film shot in Serbia—also maintains this tricky balance: They inject enough genuine heart into their characters to give them life, but there is a casual self-awareness to the performances that is careful not to challenge the fragile reality of the set-up. (Particularly good are Olivia Rouyre as Emily's best friend Madison—the only sorority sister who has ethical and practical objections to keeping an exotic animal as a pet—and Tiff Stevenson as Ms. Mayflower, the sad, drunken, 40-ish house-mother who has stayed way too long at the party.) Not everyone is in exactly the same movie—a couple of the performances swing way too broadly and unnecessarily for comedy—but for the most part everyone understood the assignment perfectly.
As does Alpha herself. Whether motivated by budget, practicality, or aesthetic vision, the best decision the filmmakers made was to bring Alpha to life through animatronics and puppetry, not CGI. The tactile physical presence of the sloth is key to making the movie work, as are its slightly dodgy movements and its more-than-slightly unnerving realism. The film exploits both the endearing cuteness and the inherent creepiness of Muppet-like lifeforms to glorious effect.
There are "serious" satiric messages powering Slotherhouse—about social-media clout chasing, the shallowness of popularity, and animal rights—and they give the proceedings substance without ever threatening the sheer giddy delight of watching an adorable sloth slice at someone with a samurai sword. Mostly, it's just funny—frequently, consistently, and often inexplicably. (The audience at my screening was laughing throughout, and often I struggled to understand why we were laughing. There are two heartfelt death- or near-death-bed scenes between Emily and other characters that are among the funniest things I've seen this year, and I don't really know why. Such is the mysterious spell cast by Slotherhouse's alchemical concoction of abattoir absurdity.)
Slotherhouse won't win any awards, make the Sight & Sound list, or end up in the Criterion Collection. It should make a lot a money, but it probably won't. It shouldn't spawn a franchise full of sequels with increased budgets and diminishing returns, but it probably will. It is no more or less than exactly what it should be: a gloriously weird thing that exists just because someone thought (quite correctly) that it would be fun. It's the kind of film that should turn up on cable late at night, where most people will meet it with bewildered cries of What the hell is this movie? But for those with the right sense of humor and sensibility, this deeply weird labor of love will become an object of love, something they share with their friends like a virus, something that becomes one of those strange cinematic shibboleths that forever link like-minded souls. (Aren't movies cool that way?)
To those of you who find this review years after Slotherhouse has ended its limited theatrical run—those of you who just came across it randomly on cable, or streamed it on a whim—I greet you, and salute you, and embrace you as a friend. No, it's not your imagination: Slotherhouse is a blast, and you're not the only one who thinks so.