American (and now UK) theatres have just been subjected to the release of Splice, a massively hyped film (not least because of a production credit from one Guillermo del Torro) that was plagued by a troublesome development process, and the mainstream press has lauded it as one of the best horror features this year.
Once again the mainstream press has proven the extent to which it is in the pay of major studios as Splice is a mess of a film. Perhaps because of its difficult birthing process, ironic given the subject matter, it fails to be lifted by either its excellent cast or neat (if under-explored) central conceit.
The action takes place in the laboratories of some stock evil corporation based in a sprawling glass and chrome city, owned by Germans and interested in playing God.
Ambitious boyfriend and girlfriend scientists Clive and Elsa, played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, have inexplicably been on the cover of Wired magazine for genetically engineering a creature with, shall we say, some phallic overtones (it’s a big slimy penis monster).
Elsa wants a baby but Clive is a non-committal man straight out of Feminist Studies for Dummies circa 1950 so manipulating his newly discovered taste for fame she sets about making one. After a brief argument where Brody’s Clive throws in a “but should we really be doing this thing we obviously shouldn’t be doing” type statement which is shot down by Polley’s Elsa in a display of supreme illogic the pair set to work in a flash lab where everything is sterile and clinical looking and obscured by the faint blue filter that is constantly fixed onto the camera’s lens.
They make their faux-daughter by combining human DNA with lots of different animals (and even a plant if the computer display that provides a pleasant cartoony visual graphic to explain it all to the audience is to be believed), all “spliced” together. Natch.
Every now and again Adrien Brody will say “modern science has gone too far this time” and Sarah Polley will say either “but you want to make loads of money right?” or “but now we share the sacred bond between mother and daughter.” Everything trundles on in the laboratory for a little while we watch the freak child learn at an accelerated rate and be creepy and become amphibious and grow wings (the first two acts are basically an extended montage) until the horrifically misjudged third act hits us: The movie throws in a new location and the creature “Dren” (because its nerd backwards… no really that’s Elsa’s reasoning, as if the thing wasn’t going to be bullied enough at school ) is suddenly “sexy.”
The idea of fertility, creation, voyeurism and sex surrounds the film and these themes are concerns central to horror since its inception way back with Nosferatu. Splice literalises these ideas and tags them in with Clive’s constant, knowing insistence that “modern science has gone too far this time” in an attempt to discuss seriously the human race’s new found ability to mess about with DNA.
If this sounds like the remake of The Fly that’s because it is. Cronenberg’s influence, though not his genius, looms large over proceedings.
The difference between the two is that whilst The Fly waded through tricky subjects like sexual desire with grace and nuance without providing a simple answer to a complicated question it does it all in the subtext; the film itself does not hang a lantern on the issues it raises. Splice does not have the same ability to pirouette between plot and meaning, the two feel increasingly exorcised from one another so we will have. For example, Sarah Polley walk in on Adrien Brody having sex with the creature they created in a test tube and then not really calling him on it. She never once says, for example, “you committed bestiality by cheating on me with our mutant daughter. You’re dumped.” Which seems like the thing that she would say.
This leads to the audience feeling ostracised from the film, the ability to suspend disbelief impossible as all the characters act in a totally alien way, even the humans. The result: everyone very literally chases tail, you stop caring.
The most maddening thing about Splice is that there is obviously a good film in there somewhere.
The directing is competent, the idea is interesting, the cast is great (when they have something to work with script wise). Sadly though the heavy hand of the studio seems to be everywhere and whenever something interesting or visually stimulating or even when there’s just a plain old compelling moment of jouissance the film does a double take, seemingly surprised at its own inventiveness, before driving on back into familiar slasher territory.
Splice culminates in a rather ho-hum “there’s a killer in the woods” climax which may as well have had a Benny Hill soundtrack for all the gravitas and suspense it created. It also brought in two absolutely unnecessary, utterly clunky characters simply for them to be killed in a CGI splattergasm.
As a final “horror” Polley’s character gets raped and you still don’t care, even when the creature (now a man / angel) hisses “inside you” in the same voice as that fox from Antichrist who goes “chaos reins” and even when she, perplexingly, seems to like it. Gender politics are also dealt with Splice’s hallmark subtlety: men are detached animalistic sex fiends, women are whores who love it but need to mother things.
So then Splice is a near cataclysmic failure that should appeal to dim-witted pre-teens and furry fetishists alone. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with horror will see all the old genre clichés crow barred in and nothing new, despite the advertising campaign’s suggestion to the contrary.
It is impossible though to downplay the sheer fun factor of watching a movie derail itself before your eyes before falling into sensationalist stupidity. The movie has so many moments where you think it can get neither worse nor more abundantly crazy which gives it a kind of sublime quality when it plumbs further the depths of depravity, sort of like watching your favourite band play a terrible show just before they break up.
Splice is a little painful to watch but by no means should that stop you – take friends, beer and low expectations.
Splice is out in cinemas accross the UK now.