Happy Families: X&HT Saw Splice

Coincidence fascinates me. I mean, I don’t believe there’s anything in it. It’s clearly just my brain mapping meaning and pattern onto unrelated events. But it’s still fun when it happens.

As a serial procrastinator, it’s taken me the best part of six months to get engineers out to look at the stuttery HD playback on our plusbox. When I finally did so, it took less than five minutes to sort, and I was left with a more open schedule for my day than I’d planned. So, I had a bit of a browse on our newly sprightly V+ feed, and found a block of free movies, including one I’d missed on its limited UK release–Vincenzo Natali’s bio-sci-horror Splice.

The coincidence kicked in as the credits rolled and I realise that the film starred Sarah Polley, director of the most excellent Take This Waltz that I raved about earlier in the week. The two films could not be more different. Take This Waltz is a delicate, precise parody of chick flick clichés. Splice is… Well, it’s bugshit crazy, in a very good way indeed.

We’re in familiar territory to horror and SF fans. Mad scientists, delusions of godhood, an experiment that horribly exceeds all expectations. The main characters are cheekily named after the stars of the classic Bride Of Frankenstein, and are as unchallenged by ethical concerns.

Elsa and Clive are heavy hitters in their field, creators of new forms of life that are paving the way to new breakthroughs in science and medicine. Of course, it’s not enough. As their corporate sponsors try to focus their attentions on more traditionally profitable enterprises, Elsa and Clive have other plans. Fusing the DNA of their creations with that of humans. You know, just to see what’ll happen.

What happens is Dren. A rapidly growing creature that starts off looking like a molerat, but in weeks takes on the physical attributes of a pretty, wide-eyed girl. Some of them, anyway. Dren has centaur-like legs, with the ability to leap into roof-eaves, and a tail loaded with a brutally effective stinger. She can’t talk, communicating in soft hoots and chirps, but thanks to the amazing, transparent performance from Delphine Chanéac we have no problem understanding Dren’s intellegence and, as the film goes on, her pain.

Typically with this sort of horror, the line between human and monster becomes increasingly blurred. Dren has no agenda, no secrets. Elsa and Clive have plenty, and they allow them to colour their relationship with their creation in terrible ways. Elsa, scarred by an abusive childhood, finds that she is repeating history with Dren. Clive crosses the line in an even more basic way, in a sequence that will simultaneously hike up your eyebrows and drop your jaw. Ultimately, neither of them cannot figure out whether Dren is a toy, a pet, a child or a specimen. They consistently underestimate their creation, and that is their downfall.

Like Take This Waltz, Splice takes well-worn genre clichés and revitalises them just by taking them to their logical conclusion, by ramping them that little bit too far. Elsa and Clive are not just terrible scientists. They’re certifiable fuckups, tolerated by their company for as long as they bring in the money. Dren is a creature of appetite and instinct, and Natali and Chanéac never flinch from showing that. It’s inevitable that an unhappy ending is coming, but the final twist works beautifully, showing just how deranged Elsa is, just how twisted her concept of motherhood.

Execution is everything in a film like Splice. It has to be played straight to stop things teetering into absurdity. It succeeds–just, despite the more brain-mashingly berserk moments, due mostly to the performances of the excellent cast and the flawless effects work. Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody both bring a frayed, haunted quality to their portrayals of the damaged scientists. I had forgotten what a good actress Polley is, and she’s on top form here. It’s possible she may never act again following her acclaimed directing work. That would be a shame.

OK, Splice is hokum. I don’t buy Natali’s insistence that it’s a cautionary take on the dangers of modern science–film-makers have been using that line since James Whale’s original Frankenstein. But it’s well-crafted and convincing hokum, consistently entertaining, deliciously perverse. It’s worth a look for that alone, but Delphine Chanéac makes Splice a monster movie with a disturbingly sexy undertone and a real sting in the tale.


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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