Review: Vincenzo Natali's Splice Has the Right DNA for Horror
by Jeremy Kirk
June 3, 2010
The scientists at the center of Splice should have watched a couple of horror movies - that way, they'd know to never go against the moral code and inject human DNA into one of their genetic creations. Things never turn out quite the way you planned. Of course, if this had been the case, if these scientist workaholics had headed out to the cineplex now and again to take the edge off with some science-based horror, we may not have gotten this movie - a smart, surreal, and, at times, a sexy take on the Frankenstein monster story. Said scientists are played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. They play Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast, and, if you get the references from their names, then you and I are simpatico.
Clive and Elsa work for a genetics lab, splicing DNA to create hybrid creatures so that they can farm the genes for the betterment of science. All seems to be working swimmingly for them until they day they decide to see what happens when they introduce the human element to their projects. They also do it just to see if they can, which, combined with the putting-tin-foil-in-the-microwave-just-to-see attitude, can lead to some pretty horrific and unnatural occurrences.
What they create, though, is not all that horrific. Not at first, anyway. The result of their experiments is Dren, a humanoid female with bald head, fish-like eyes, bird legs, and a whipping tail complete with scorpion stinger. At first, Dren serves as their pet, hopping around on two legs without arms, but the human side of her quickly makes itself known. Before long (Dren's aging rate has been amplified incredibly) the creature grows into adulthood, and Clive and Elsa, long since treading past the point of no return, find themselves heading into very dangerous ground.
Two aspects of Splice that writer/director Vincenzo Natali pulls off perfectly are both based on structure, structure of the film as a whole and structure of Dren as a creation. The film, at least in its pacing, is quite the opposite of many horror films you may be familiar with. We know from the ads, reviews such as this, and Cyrille Aufort's haunting musical cues that things are going to turn ugly for everyone involved. However, for the longest time, Natali treats the film, treats the relationship between Clive, Elsa, and Dren as if we are watching a drama unfold, a family drama, no less.
Much care is given to the character connections throughout the film, even between the leads and a few side characters that would only seem like fodder in another, poorly structured, horror film. Little horror instances are thrown in here and there with Splice. Dren nearly attacks another human and a segment right in the middle of the film serves up some of the best blood-splashing this side of early Peter Jackson (e.g. Dead Alive). This latter moment is, actually, rather out of place from the rest of the film, and its presence almost seems thrown in to keep the audience in check that they are, in fact, watching a horror film. However, this aside, it isn't until the film's final act, almost the final fifth or sixth of the film, that Natali turns on the horror full blast.
Unfortunately, when he does, Splice falls into convention. When dealing with a film that has this sort of build to it, extraordinary build, at that, it is best not to divulge much that happens in the final section where everything comes to a head. I will just say that there were a hundred better ways to handle the climax of the film other than to have a CG creation chasing people through a dark, forest area.
That creation, though, is the other element to Splice that works nearly flawlessly. The design of Dren is impeccable, almost as if they began with a human look and added various characteristics to her. The execution is equally stunning, eschewing the over-usage of computer effects in favor of makeup and CG only to enhance the look of actress Delphine Chanéac. Her performance brings Dren to life, as well, as she never shies away from her character. She embraces the curious side of the creature she is playing, giving Dren a child-like identity even when she is becoming the monster we know she is to become. It is also Chaneac's performance that aids those of Brody and Polley, neither of whom give much to their respective roles. We are told things about Clive and Elsa's past. Elsa, evidently, had an abusive childhood, which leads to the mental state she is in, but nothing feels genuine with either of these characters. Nothing leads us to believe anything about their story before what is being shown begins. Unfortunately, they don't even seem to share the same level of chemistry between one another that each of them has with Dren.
Which brings us to the more controversial aspects of Splice. Much like Chaneac's performance, Natali and fellow screenwriters Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor have no interest in shying away. They really seem to have no fear in the story they are telling, and they take Splice in directions you won't see coming. Even before the film turns to its more conventional, horror roots, it goes down some side streets that, for better or worse, leaves the audience completely stunned. Sadly, both times I saw this film (first at Sundance and then again after Warner Bros and Dark Castle picked it up for distribution), the moment in question (trust me, you'll know precisely what I am talking about when it happens) elicits a sense of discomfort, which, in turn, brings on the unintentional laughter. Kudos to WB for keeping this moment intact and not forcing Natali's hand to trim it. Needless to say, the film has controversial moments, one moment in particular, and it's refreshing to see a horror film allow itself to go into such daring territory.
Structurally sound, rich in the dark tone it presents, and foreboding without ever really throwing it in your face until near the end, Splice is a horror film that succeeds despite the obvious faults that lie within. A better crafted ending and a reworking of the two lead characters would have made Splice one of the best, science-based horror films to date. The issues the film has are evident, almost bleeding through to the surface so as not to be noticed. Fortunately, the things Splice does right, it does with a faultless accuracy, and the moralistic limits become hazy. This is a good thing trying to shed convention, something Splice absolutely does up to a point. The bad parts of Dren are what, ultimately, turn her into a horrific creation.
Luckily, a film is the sum of all of its parts, the good and the not so good. The DNA of conventional horror does not outweigh the superb stylings of the tale Vincenzo Natali has to tell, and Splice, in the end, is a creation he should be proud to have produced.
Jeremy's Rating: 7.5 out of 10