August 4, 2022

Freakish Fish People of Sci-fi #3: Spawn of the Slithis

Freakish, Frightful Fish People #3: Spawn of the Slithis (1978)

This third installment of Frightful Fish People takes us to the scenic Venice area of westside Los Angeles, with its famous beach, canals, boardwalk, murals, street performers… and occasionally, radioactive humanoid-fish mutants.

The protagonist of 1978’s Spawn of the Slithis is Wayne Connors (Alan Blanchard), a terminally bored high school journalism teacher whose newshound instincts are revived by reports of animals and people in Venice’s canal district being killed and the flesh sucked off their bones (yikes!).

The amateur sleuth sneaks into the house of a murdered couple, and finds a mysterious mud-like substance at the scene. He takes samples, which he delivers to a scientist friend, Dr. John (Dennis Falt). After Dr. John analyzes the stuff, he tells Connors that it appears to be Slithis, a rare organic form of mud resulting from radioactive contamination, that can absorb the properties of any lifeform it comes into contact with. According to Dr. John, Slithis first appeared near an atomic plant in Wisconsin, but authorities suppressed the findings to avoid a panic.

More murders take place. Connors interviews one survivor, a homeless veteran, who swears he saw a huge man-like lizardy-fish creature. Later, Connors talks to yet another expert, a nuclear scientist, Erin Burick (J.C. Claire) who confirms the presence of Slithis in the Venice area due to a leak from a nearby atomic energy facility. Burick speculates that Slithis can evolve into highly complex forms... like a murdering, face-sucking fish creature. (Burick has hideous facial scarring from a presumed lab accident -- this character definitely got my attention the first time I saw the movie.)

Poster - Spawn of the Slithis, 1978

Connors tries to get the police involved, but they prefer their own cult ritual murder theory. Connors and Dr. John take it upon themselves to drain the canals at the main lock to prevent the Slithis creature from getting ready access to the town, but the murders continue in the harbor.

The intrepid duo hires a SCUBA expert (Mello Alexandria) and his boat to collect mud samples near the energy plant to prove their Slithis theory. But, evidence or not, they soon realize that the police will do nothing and that they will have to capture the creature themselves.

You’ve got to have more faith in your monster suit

Spawn of the Slithis, released just a year after Star Wars revolutionized cinematic sci-fi and turned the genre into a gold mine, is a throwback to the ‘50s era of rubber-suited, atomic age monsters.

Producer/writer/director Stephen Traxler reportedly made his retro drive-in movie in just 12 days for a paltry $100K by spending long days shooting on location around Venice, Marina del Rey and Santa Monica. (Traxler’s only other directorial credit is a failed TV pilot/TV movie, Sam Churchill: Search for a Homeless Man, shot in Santa Barbara and broadcast in 1999.)

While that area of Southern California is scenic and funky and deserving of some cinematic attention, the film is slowed down considerably by lingering shots of local landmarks (including a whole scene devoted to -- wait for it -- a turtle race held at a local bar).

It also doesn’t help that some of the expository dialog is repetitive and long-winded -- various characters, including two scientists, go on and on about the origins and properties of Slithis, while the actual product of the gunk, the flesh-sucking creature, is given relatively little screen time.

To add insult to injury, most of the meager time the creature does get is so dark it’s hard to make him out. The rare close-ups and medium shots of the thing reveal a suit that’s not half bad. It’s not as if this is some Val Lewton-esque exercise in stimulating the audience’s imagination and fear of things in the shadows. Drive-in monsters should be seen and heard. But it seems as if Traxler didn’t have enough faith in his monster to put it out there unabashedly.

Screenshot - climax of Spawn of the Slithis, 1978
There he is! Lookin' good Slithis!

Traxler does try to mix things up with “fish-eye” POV shots of the creature stalking the streets and canals of Venice. And he provides a pretty good nighttime climax of the fish-man attacking the monster-hunters on their boat, which echoes classic scenes from Creature from the Black Lagoon and Jaws.

And then there’s this line, voiced by the boat’s captain (Alexandria) in his best Quint imitation: "Remember, this thing is just a fish, and I’m one hell of a fisherman.”



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