Of all the Hollywood genres, the one with the least guts may be the horror genre. That may sound odd, but next to the creative doldrums of the romantic comedy (by far the worst), it’s where you see the least invention and the most rehashing. The reason for this are simple and very similar to the factors plaguing the romantic comedy. They don’t have to be good to make money. Most horror films are cheap to produce and don’t require highly paid stars in order to reach their target demographic. You can make a piece of schlock with a healthy amount of gore and jump-cuts and feel very confident about making a profit, which gives studio horror projects little incentive for innovation or quality.
That’s why it’s so refreshing when, once in a great while, you see a Hollywood horror flick with guts. I mean a real brass pair. Calling Splice a Hollywood film is a bit of stretch, since it was independently financed and had to make the festival circuit to find distribution, which it did after producers Joel Silver and Guillermo del Toro flipped their lids for it. Even with backers like that, after watching it I’m still surprised it got extensive studio support. Here is a film that knows where it wants to go and goes there, broad-jumping over numerous content boundaries to get to that point. It’s one of the movies that has moments where you know what it should do, but you don’t think a Hollywood movie would ever have the stones to follow through. And then it does. And then some.
Plot-wise, Splice is a rather simple little story. A married pair of genetic engineers, played by actual actors Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, are working on developing animal hybrids to extract valuable proteins, and they decide to take their research further and splice human DNA, unbeknown-st to their employers. It’s a simple concept that’s not entirely original, but it’s all in the execution. Director Vincenzo Natali displays a keen understanding of what it is the so disturbs us about the prospects of human cloning and tampering with human DNA. He understands that it is in the similarities to ourselves, not the differences, that the real horror resides. We get incredibly uncomfortable when confronted with the uncanny, as if such science-aided creations are an affront to our very humanity. Some of the most disturbing scenes in Splice are actually the quieter ones, where the film capitalizes on the unease that comes when viewing something that is so close to human and yet so unmistakably not. The scientists raise their creation, from icky worm-like sac to all-too-humanoid adolescent female, as two parents raise a child, and watching situations that would be outright boring if they occurred with a human infant fills you a rising feeling of pronounced dread. The creature has many human characteristics, and displays the same curiosities and emotional volatility as a human adolescent, and that just creeps the hell out of you. The noises it makes, the off-putting relationship its ‘parents’ have with it. It’s just incredibly disturbing, and disturbing in a way that doesn’t require any actual violence until the final reel. This is that rare horror film that takes its time to build, and earns its frights through solid scene-craft and characters that feel very real, including the hybrid herself.
The themes of scientific boundary breaches and the dangers of ‘playing God’ are certainly present, and they’re rather hamhandedly stuffed down your throat in the early going. But what evolves is less about the progression of science than the powerful and fearsome anxieties of parenthood. In this way, Splice actually owes its lineage more to David Lynch’s Eraserhead than to its other influences. The characters alternate between nervous hesitation and pride and fear in much the same way many normal parents do. In this case their parental worries are far more pronounced and theatrical, but not necessarily more dangerous. Why have they let this being into the world? What will it’s place in the world be? And what are they prepared to do if their creation poses a serious threat?
As mentioned earlier, the dialogue used to explore these ideas in very stilted in the setup, and that’s where the film’s flaws reside. It can’t find a way to introduce its premise without being somewhat hysterical about it, and there are a few early points where the film comes close to losing its audience’s sympathy. Which is interesting, because usually films fall to this problem as they progress. Splice, on the other hand, becomes more nuanced as it goes on. The film could actually easily be adapted into a stage play, which isn’t something you normally consider with sci-fi horror. The sets consist primary of two interior locations; a renovated laboratory and a wonderfully designed barn where the scientists put their creation when the lab becomes unavailable. Even the limited outdoor locales have the look and feel of stage design, with spooky back-lit trees and resting fog. The art direction throughout is really quite stunning, and it’s perhaps one of most pleasant surprises of the production. The cinematography is also often gorgeous.
As I said before, this film goes to some places you rarely see studio-produced films dare to go, and that means that some scenes can be very uncomfortable. The ramifications of human splicing are explored in not only their potential for violence, but their potential for emotional and…er….sexual consequences as well. As graphic and unsettling as some of the scenes can be, they never feel gratuitous. In fact, the film requires them in order to create its power and maintain it thematic cohesion. Just be warned.
A film like Splice is a rarity in a wide release, and if you’re intrigued by science fiction/horror cinema and yearn for a major film free of the usual assembly-line mores, then Splice is a gift. It didn’t do so well at the box office last weekend, so please go out and support it. Films this daring only come along every so often.