Opening Friday, October 31st
Shea Whigham as Dennis Farell
Paulo Costanzo as Seth Belzer
Jill Wagner as Polly Watt
Rachel Kerbs as Lacey Belisle
Laurel Whitsett as Sheriff Terri Frankel
Directed by Toby Wilkins
The minimalist siege formula has worked wonders for some directors, sometimes putting them at the forefront of the genre. Romero challenged expectations in Night of the Living Dead, a siege story predominantly set in a single-location. Turning to more modern examples, Neil Marshall offered a few inventive twists in a simple action-horror package called Dog Soldiers and Carter Smith’s The Ruins fused a few familiar themes and presented high, visceral impact within a basic framing. It also turned the siege formula inside-out by placing it outdoors. Toby Wilkins’ Splinter follows this well-tread path and turns a nostalgic eye towards the creature features of the ’80s and early-’90s. In this case, “nostalgia” doesn’t equal “groundbreaking,” however, Wilkins still crafts a cool, entertaining and chock full ‘o shocks monster flick whose strengths rest on the (multiple) shoulders of Splinter‘s main menace.
Working with a threadbare cast, Wilkins begins his film confidently by constructing a believable relationship in Seth and Polly, a playful couple heading out on an anniversary camping trip. “Sex under the stars” is their goal, but a busted tent spoils those frisky plans and sends them off in search of a hotel. In their drive along the country back roads, the two stop to help a squirrelly young woman, Lacey, who is seemingly traveling by foot. But her plight is just a ruse and Seth and Polly are soon kidnapped by Lacey’s gun-totin’ fella Dennis (played with tough, despicable ease by Shea Whigham). The quartet is subsequently hindered by car troubles so they make their way to a gas station. To compound matters, a reanimated contorted human cadaver discovered in the bathroom prompts Seth, Polly and Dennis to hole up in the station’s convenience store. What ensues is your classic “What was that thing and how do we avoid it eating us?!” siege scenario with the trio seeking to escape and/or destroy “it.” Because “it,” obviously, wants to get into the store very badly.
Bristling with black sea urchin-like spikes that grow out of the flesh, and moving with unpredictable speed and ferociousness, Splinter‘s monstrosity is a parasite that infects its host. It gets under your skin and grows, bending the limbs of its vessel this way and that until the human frame looks like a lethal marionette. Wilkins and the team at Quantam Creation FX pull off most of the parasite’s infection with terrific, grisly practical FX. What you can see of it, that is. Nelson Cragg’s photography and David Michael Maurer’s editing combined offer only fleeting, frenzied glimpses of the parasite’s mayhem which works as an advantage and a detriment. The “slow reveal” is a classic monster movie archetype, however, Splinter rarely offers you the full money shots creature connoisseurs would like to see. Still, the reveals work to a degree and ratchet up the curiosity factor.
Wilkins and co-writers Kai Barry and Ian Shorr ensure that the threat inside the store, at first, is as dangerous as the one outside, so they paint an involving level of friction between Seth and Polly (Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner, respectively) and Dennis, which eventually evaporates. Not until we see various shades of our trio, however. Wagner offers Polly the most believable character turns whereas Costanzo is stuck with the unenviable job of being the exposition guy. And since he’s a biology major, guess what? Seth’s got some theories on the creature outside and he’s gonna tell you what it is. That’s all well and fine, but it feels shoehorned in. Not to mention he makes one of the most ludicrous decisions in the film when a perfectly good plan of escape was presented 20 minutes earlier. Dean faces his own metamorphosis, in keeping with the film’s theme, in ways gorehounds will appreciate.
Indeed, Splinter comes with its imperfections, yet I’m a sucker for monster movies (not the sub-par Sci-Fi Channel variety) when they’re done with ambition, which this film obviously has. I don’t think I could turn my nose up at a movie where there’s a creature that looks like something that walked out of Herbert West’s lab, where body parts have a mind of their own and furry critters are no exception to the parasite’s hunger. Splinter moves at a swift pace and carries a few tricks up its sleeve. Wilkins’ direction is assured, transcending the production’s modest budget. Kudos to him for getting down to the basics. There are inklings of larger ideas tapping into the eco-horror realm lying just beneath the surface – hints of where this the parasite comes from and how man is encroaching on its environment – that go unexplored and are best left to the imagination. Or a sequel. Every good ’80s throwback has to have sequel potential, right?