Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror. For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: Splice.
When it comes to our stories about science there is an undercurrent of distrust. We seem to see the benefits of science but are very aware that people could take things too far with catastrophic consequences. With good intentions humanity brings evil onto itself. Stuff like Frankenstein, Godzilla, The Fly and Re-Animator deal with these ideas. A recent film that took these well-trodden themes into a new direction was Vincenzo Natali’s Splice. It takes the questions of scientific ethics to the most extreme place. That’s not all there is to the film though. The drive to create is the focus more than science specifically. Through a wild and pulpy story it explores ideas of creating art as well as life. The science fiction conceit allows for a unique way of tackling parental dynamics and what it is inside us pushing us to craft things.
Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) have been splicing together the DNA of different animals to create completely new hybrid creatures. Their latest creations have unique proteins that could be used to fight a myriad of diseases. This spurns them on into wanting to splice in some human DNA. With human DNA in the mix there would be the chance that they could tackle even more diseases, a great deal more than with just animal DNA. But the financiers shoot down their idea because they question the ethics of it. Clive and Elsa do it anyway, but keep it secret. As it gets bigger it gets harder to control and the line between experiment and child becomes blurred. It changes quicker than they can keep up with and they seem to be losing their grip.
At the centre of the film is the parental dynamic between Clive and Elsa as they raise this creature they have called Dren (Delphine Chaeac). As Dren grows, her human side becomes even more pronounced. She ages very quickly and goes from looking like a phallic slug to a child and then an adolescent within weeks. This experiment becomes a parenting trial run for Clive and Elsa, as they are a couple as well as colleagues. Elsa had a very difficult childhood and an abusive mother. In the early days of the experiment she is the prime caregiver. Her mother’s treatment of her makes her want to care for this surrogate child all the more. But as time goes on her position as the main parent begins to backfire. As she spends the most time with Dren she often has to be the disciplinary. As human as Dren is she still has an animalistic side that has to be kept in check. Clive is busy covering for Elsa at the lab as she cares for Dren, so when he spends time with Dren it’s more of a special occasion. Elsa becomes a bore to Dren and more often than not is who is telling her off. Dren becomes increasingly hostile towards Elsa and closer towards Clive. What Elsa is doing is necessary but the growing emotional distance between herself and Dren becomes more and more difficult. The time spent apart also takes its toll on Clive and Elsa’s relationship. Not just that they are spending so much time away from each other but that she cannot help feel resentful towards him. He does so little compared to her and even tried to kill Dren once yet he is who is showered with love. Elsa becomes to feel neglected and Clive feels like she is being too hostile because he only sees her at her worst. Elsa’s anxieties and fears are brought out by the worsening situation and that’s when things take a dark turn. Not only does the film serve as a scientific cautionary tale but a parental one. The imbalance in their relationship tears them apart well before people start to be literally torn apart.
For the most part Splice is a sci-fi horror movie about a creepy creature and its development into a monster. But within its story there are also some cool statements about filmmaking itself. Splice itself is an editing term but the film is more about exploring why we make things. The two main scientists are all about experimentation and doing things that have never been done. They want to know if they can do something, not if they should. Their financiers (a stand in for movie studios) are much more concerned with doing what has already been perfected. Clive and Elsa’s first experimentation went well and the financiers would much rather they continue with this established science rather than branching out. Similar to the experience Vincenzo Natali himself had. His debut feature Cube was a surprising success. It was an ingenious little horror film that kind of had similar concepts to Saw seven years before that film came out. But then Natali didn’t make another feature for five years and his next two films were met with mixed reviews. They didn’t really have the same energy of originality that Cube had. Cube spawned a series of sequels (and a prequel) that Natali had no hand in. His creation was taken away from him, something that happens to be Clive and Elsa’s biggest fear. Splice is Natali’s most interesting film since Cube and his frustrations as a filmmaker are felt throughout. Experimentation is what propels these people to stardom and then they are expected to hamper that creativity for those who want to make money. In the case of Splice that annoyance with the powers-that-be manifests itself in this monster.
Even outwith all the conceptual stuff going on, Splice is a really fun sci-fi horror film. There are some moments of great black comedy, creepiness and basically some really messed up stuff. The creature effects are also incredibly good. When Dren develops fully she is insanely well realised. It just has a fantastic mix of CGI and practical effects throughout. And as wild as things get, the cast completely commit to it and deliver some great performances. Films about people taking something too far rarely actually go as far as Splice does. It fully commits to showing how warped things can become when boundaries are fully pushed. The crazy places that it goes has made it really divisive but I’m glad Natali just went all out with it. In a way it proves the films point about filmmaking. That if you really try to take a creation beyond the predetermined boundaries then it will be rejected as a monstrosity. Not that the film was completely rejected but those who don’t care for it did not appreciate how dark it gets. But for horror or sci-fi fans it’s still one of the most interesting films in the genre from the past few years.
James M Macleod