By Paula R. Stiles
Splinter (2008). Director: Toby Wilkins. Writers: Ian Shorr and Kai Barry. Cast: Jill Wagner, Paulo Costanzo, Shea Whigham, Rachel Kerbs. Country: USA.
[some spoilers ahead]
A young couple, adventurous Polly (Jill Wagner) and nerdy Seth (Paulo Costanzo), goes camping in the woods on their honeymoon. After they’re carjacked by an escaped convict, Dennis (Shea Whigham) and his dimbulb addict girlfriend, Lacey (Rachel Kerbs), they are all attacked by a parasitical creature that eats its victims from the inside out. They end up besieged at an already infested gas station, where they face being picked off, one by one, by the monsterised staff. The title comes from the way the creature attacks and infiltrates its victims, by what look like porcupine quills, in the process of tearing them apart and turning the body parts into individual monsters that can also recombine into one big creature made out of your dead loved ones. Cue lots of Thing-from-The-Addams-Family‘s mutant cousins.
Speaking of Things, Splinter has obviously been inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing, though the way the creature infiltrates its victims is different and more grisly. Someone did take some care to file the serial numbers off the basic idea and make it their own. But the association/homage with/to that body horror sci-fi classic also makes it an obviously Lovecraftian concept (right down to it being sci-fi horror rather than fantasy horror) and the execution is sort of Lovecraft-meets-indie horror zombie road movie. This utterly alien creature may be mindless, but it’s also superlative at hunting and eating humans. It’s a signal example of how Lovecraft’s cold, uncaring universe is unimpressed by our delusions of grandeur.
I’m not a fan of Costanzo’s character in Royal Pains, but his character is surprisingly sympathetic and resourceful in this one. Yeah, Seth’s an urban Jewish stereotype, but at least he’s a likeable one. And it’s not as if horror has lots of Jewish characters in it these days. This isn’t even Costanzo’s first horror flick. He had previously done a spoof zombie short, The Day the Dead Weren’t Dead, the year before.
In fact, the acting and writing are both good overall. I liked that the survivors bring various talents and skills to the table, rising above their cliched introductions. Yes, there’s tension and conflict, but when the chips are down, they all weigh in together, with perky Polly exhibiting a surprising streak of berserker during monster-fighting scenes, sociopathic Dennis showing some even-more-surprising willingness to play on a team, and intellectual Seth demonstrating a keen sensory awareness of the peril lurking their surroundings. Sadly, Lacey is more than a tad useless. The actors also make clear why these two couples are together and care about each other, especially in some scenes of mutual comfort and affection between Polly and Seth, and one particularly horrific scene between Dennis and Lacey. It’s easy to root for that rare horror-movie group that understands the reality that they will all hang separately if they don’t hang together. They’re not trying to save the world, just to escape.
I also really liked how the script makes the protagonists so resourceful – for two reasons. One is that we root for them while also getting some creative fight scenes. The other is that the story uses the convenience store setting to great effect. Somebody who worked on this film also once worked at a gas station. We see the characters use everything from hammers to baseball bats to walk-in freezers and thermometers to fight and hide from the creatures. It really points up how that kind of store is loaded with possible weaponry. They’re not the first horror filmmakers to realise that, but they’re still in the minority.
No, Splinter is not perfect. It suffers greatly from seizure-inducing shaky-cam during the kill scenes, especially in the first half. And there are some random Dumb on Cue moments for otherwise-clever characters. I can understand that the former is probably being used to cover up the low-budget FX and the latter exists to ramp up the drama, but the shaky-cam, especially, is still over the top. I actually stopped watching the teaser because the shaky-attack trope was so hard to watch and I didn’t really start to get into the film until later. Yet, Splinter also has a lot of really tense moments and the camera settles down to observe some well-done gore later in the film, particularly of the skittery kind (including a long, slow, cruel take of one poor victim being eaten from the inside out, after being ripped in half). The movie keeps you in suspense about who will survive, while making you actually care. That alone makes it better than most of the crap out there.