Old-School Scares

'Splice' melds humor, true horror and awesome special effects

Splice has invaded this bland summer movie season like an insane, confused partygoer told she was attending a Halloween masquerade ball rather than a friendly barbecue. It's a crazy film likely to alienate those who prefer formulaic horror (I'm talking to you, Saw fans!) while pleasing those who like their scares a little more on the outlandish side.

The last sustained blast of outlandish mainstream horror came in the '80s and early '90s, when Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Stuart Gordon and David Cronenberg were going strong. (Most of their offerings didn't set the box office on fire, but they had a nice afterlife on video.) By outlandish horror, I mean something equally scary and outrageously funny, the prime example being Jackson's unbelievably gross and hilarious Dead Alive (aka Braindead, 1992).

As I watched Vincenzo Natali's Splice, I found myself laughing one second and cringing with nausea the next—just like the good ol' days. Here's a film that takes an inquisitive look at the boundaries and barriers that have made horror films so bland and routine in recent years, then blasts those barriers with steel-toed boots and sledgehammers.

Clive and Elsa, romantically involved celebrity scientists (played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), have been mixing DNA from various animals to create strange mutant creatures—huge, larvae-type things that look like they were borrowed from a Cronenberg film—capable of producing unique and valuable proteins. These proteins could lead to cures for many diseases, so the moral and ethical implications of what they are doing are overshadowed by the potential good.

They want the next step to involve human DNA, but their corporate bosses, afraid of the political firestorm it might cause, deny them the chance. That doesn't stop the two from inserting a little human DNA into the experiment behind closed doors, just to see what might happen.

Well, mighty big things do happen—in the form of a creepy yet beautiful creature named Dren. Dren starts out like an earless, hairless jackrabbit, but quickly evolves into a bald, scorpion-tailed beauty (mischievously played by Delphine Chanéac, looking like an unholy amalgam of Sinead O'Connor, Jeanne Tripplehorn and a Siamese cat). Throw in a surprise set of wings, and you have a truly original horror entity.

Much of Splice's success rests squarely on the shoulders of its three central performers. The characters played by Brody and Polley, despite their professional and intellectual successes, are severely damaged goods, and their behavior becomes increasingly selfish and erratic. Polley's Elsa regresses to the evils of her control-freak mother, at first coddling Dren, but then confining and even torturing her when she fails to follow orders. Brody's Clive proves to be truly sick, culminating in a scene that provides one of cinema's all-time-greatest "Busted!" moments.

Chanéac's monster performance sits alongside the first appearances of Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger. When Dren's chirpy childlike wonder transitions into more adult cravings, it's the stuff of nightmares—yet, somehow, Chanéac makes her a monster to root for, at least until things really get out of hand.

A glance at the credits shows that the film's '80s horror vibe is no mistake. Handling the special effects makeup are none other than Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero, whose combined résumés include Evil Dead II, Day of the Dead (my pick for horror cinema's greatest gore moments) and the original Predator. A lot of hands went into the creation of Dren and her sick ways, but those two names are standouts, for sure. Seeing them in the opening credits let me know I was in for something good and disgusting.

While I don't think mainstream audiences are going to take to Splice all that much this summer, it will probably enjoy decent word of mouth and home-video success, like some of its great genre predecessors. I, for one, am grateful that something has come along to break up the stale monotony of this summer movie season brought upon us by the likes of Robin Hood, the Prince of Persia and Sarah Jessica Parker. While Dren is supposed to be the real monster, those entities are the ones who have been slowly killing me.


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