Sunday, July 12, 2020

Splice Is An Appropriately Unnerving Creature Feature

For the weekend of June 4, 2010, you had a couple of options in terms of new release movies. You could watch Killers, a Katherine Heigl/Ashton Kutcher romantic-comedy. You could also partake in Marmaduke, the newest attempt by Hollywood to make that Alvin and the Chipmunks lightning strike twice. Then there was Get Him to the Greek, starring Russell Brand (man, the movie stars of 2010 are such distant memories they might as well be the movie stars of 1920). Or you could watch Splice, an original horror film from Vincenzo Natali that goes in some...let's say strange directions. It's certainly not an ordinary film but I found it consistently engaging, even if only on a "What will they do next?" level.

Genetic engineers Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polly) are struggling to keep their careers afloat. Their financiers don't trust them to take their genetic experiments to the next level. All these rich backers want is for the duo to work on extracting proteins for pharmaceutical products. Elsa decides to take a bold risk. She encourages Clive to embark on pursuing their scientific ambition in secret. That ambition? To create a human-like clone. Though they initially plan to just see if this can create a viable fetus and stop there, they decide to let this new creature enter the world. Soon going by the name of Dren, this entity is unlike anything the world has ever seen. It's a breakthrough. But Dren is also a problem as Clive and Elsa proceed to do whatever it takes to keep Dren a secret from the outside world.

Splice was probably doomed to never resonate with mainstream horror audiences but that's not a knock on the film or even a condescending slight at viewers. Understandably, most horror moviegoers are gonna want a horror film that's constantly giving them scares. Splice, meanwhile, is a more tonally complex project. Dren isn't slicing and dicing people the entire runtime and she isn't even that much of a terrifying creation (for the most part). Instead, writer/director Natali creates tension under the surface. There's an impending sense of doom from both the in-movie characters and the viewers watching Splice. We all know Dren is a ticking time bomb. The fact that her supposed "parents" (Clive and Elsa) put hiding Dren as a priority over Dren's safety makes dangerous conflict inevitable.

Ditto for how Dren keeps showing off new abilities, including gills and wings. Each new revelation about Dren's biology is like a tease on the part of Natali. In gradually revealing just how powerful Dren is, the viewer gets the growing concern of how outmatched every human being is compared to Dren. Those wings sure look pretty but boy, they could be useful in just plucking people off the ground, huh? Discovery goes hand-in-hand with quiet dreed in the hands of Natali, who keeps teasing the viewer on how things in Splice will manage to go to Hell. It's not the default approach for handling scares in a horror film but it's one I found to be intriguing.

That more understated quality of the scares is combined with deviations into different tones. Splice delivers a handful of quiet scenes where Dren contemplates her identity, including a particularly poignant moment where the bald-headed Dren poignantly tussles the long blonde hair of a Barbie doll. Meanwhile, elements of dark comedy also creep into the proceedings, with Polly getting the best amusing moment with her reaction shot upon stumbling onto Clive becoming intimate with another person. Of course, these digressions don't manage to undercut the most unnerving parts of Splice, including a seriously chilling scene where Elsa stips Dren down and begins to treat her as just another science experiment.

Of course, Splice has its share of shortcomings to go along with its better features. For one thing, Splice doesn't end up having much to say about the world of genetic engineering. It's mostly just using this field as the basis for a gnarly monster movie. That's not an inherently bad thing but it does leave the film feeling slight. Meanwhile, supporting characters beyond Clive, Elsa and Dren are obviously around to just be part of the Splice's body count. Even with its lesser qualities, though, Splice, much like Kevin Smith's Tusk, scratched my itch for an unnerving slow-burn creature feature. At any rate, it's significantly better than Marmaduke, I'll tell you that!

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