When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made From Dusk ‘Til Dawn back in 1996, critics predicted a run on genre-melding movies where established types (the crime thriller) would be married to horror archetypes (in this case, the vampire) to create some intriguing and sparkling new combinations. Sadly, no such macabre renaissance occurred. Fans went back to the surefire recipe of comedy mixed with creepshow, and no one successfully ventured back into the realm of cinematic cross pollination. Now comes Splinter, a nasty little indie splatter job that again sees two on-the-run lowlifes taking a pair of vacationing lovers hostage. What the foursome finds in the isolated wilderness is both incredibly gruesome and undeniably satisfying, especially for fright mavens desperate for a little post-modern monster mashing.
While on an anniversary camping trip, young couple Seth Belzer and Polly Watt run into some tent set-up trouble. Looking for a motel for the night, they fall prey to desperate girl Lacey and her killer boyfriend Dennis. These fugitives from the law need a vehicle, and Seth and Polly become both transporters and convenient captives. A stop off at a local gas station seems normal enough, that is, until Lacey runs into a corpse covered in spines laying on the bathroom floor. After it attacks her, she too becomes a rotting, reanimated monster. Soon Seth, Polly and Dennis are holed up inside, fighting off an onslaught of creatures who want to slaughter and consume their quarry. Even after being mangled and partially destroyed, these beings keep coming - and there doesn’t seem to be a way of stopping them.
Shea Whigham, Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner
(Magnolia Pictures; US theatrical: 31 Oct 2008; 2008)
If you can get beyond one basic narrative flaw, and a low budget dynamic which provides limited looks at our Bottin-inspired fiends, Splinter will come as a wonderful little fright flick surprise. Directed with an excellent sense of style and suspense by F/X artist Toby Wilkins, what could have been another beast with a bad attitude effort combines the best of zombies, shapeshifters, feigned victim machismo and ample arterial spray to become a minor masterwork. Sure, Wilkins still needs to work on his pacing, and spending too much time with characters who we end up hating more than indentifying with can have an adverse impact on your shivers. But when the overall effect is this gloriously ghastly and unrelenting, you just have to give in to the terror.
Of course, you will have to overcome the advanced wussiness and everpresent whine of Paul Costanzo as Seth. Playing the typical intellectual untouched by the call of nature, this know-it-all nebbish becomes as irritating as a rash once the monsters start showing up. He’s incapable of anything remotely resembling heroics and is constantly upstaged by his strong, centered gal pal. Toward the end, when the threat is becoming a bit too much, Seth grows a pair and starts showing some mantle. But until then, he is the most unlikeable character in the entire film. And for something that has to use every possible cinematic element at its disposal to overcome some definite low budget leanings, this doesn’t help.
Luckily, the rest of the cast steps up to the plate and delivers in evocative and effective ways. Shea Whigham has the mostly thankless role of playing the gun toting bad guy. Yet thanks to some last act reveals and the strength of the performance, we accept his angry young manliness. Rachel Kerbs is also a test as Lacey, but she goes ghoul so quickly that we don’t really mind the momentary lapses into dope addict antics. But it is Jill Wagner who steals the show as Polly. She’s the kind of companion who is as capable of taking a punch as delivering one. At several times throughout Splinter‘s storyline, Wagner has to stand where the men won’t venture. She does so with defiance and a Ripley-like resolve.
And then there’s Wilkins. Clearly inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing and adding in a little of his own old school scare tactics as well, the first time filmmaker shows a real skill at making the mundane seem incredibly scary. During a pre-credits sequence, a gas station attendant is attacked by a seemingly rabid animal. Thanks to editing and shot selection, what could have been silly comes across as ferocious and quite foul. Equally disturbing is the nature of the beast. Even with bodies badly broken and brutalized, these beings keep coming - and Wilkins isn’t afraid to highlight the physical atrocities involved. Gorehounds will absolutely love him for it.
Yet Splinter is not perfect. It’s got the single location standoff down pat, and when the blood starts flowing, it can’t be beat. But Wilkins also seems stifled by the decision to downsize the scope. There is a bit too much time taken up in repetitive conversation, and financial issues keep the creature effects from being utilized sufficiently. In most cases we want more, more, more: more monsters; more attacks; more ass kicking; more action thriller mechanics. This may be the first film in which the polished professionalism of everyone involved becomes addictive - especially in light of its heavy reliance on the trappings of the genre. But money does change everything, for good and for bad. If Wilkins had a few more bucks, maybe Splinter would have suffered for it.
As it stands, this is a solid little gem that should be sought out by anyone who loved the allure of Aliens, the austerity of Assault on Precinct 13 (the original), and the moment when a member of McReady’s crew turned into a upside down spider head. While some may see it as nothing more than a small scale experiment that succeeds more often than it fails, Wilkins work behind the lens suggests something much meatier and more satisfying. With Halloween almost a full month behind us, it may seem like bad timing to try and sell a scary movie. But something like Splinter is so desperate to transcend the type that when it barely manages to do so, we have no choice but to pay attention. It’s definitely worth such a look.