Silver Screen: Splice ****

Silver Screen: Splice ****
Bryan Miller

The slow-burning, cerebral horror flick Splice is part Frankenstein, part David Cronenberg, and part Eraserhead (okay, mostly just the worm part of Eraserhead, but still...). Much like the hybrid creature at the center of the film, it's cobbled together from a half-dozen original sources but remains wholly unique.

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley star as Clive and Elsa, a pair of scientists who have combined the DNA of several different creatures-- fish, birds, mammals-- to create a pair of new beings, lumpy worms that serve as the carriers for a gene that can potentially be used to cure a variety of diseases. As tends to happen to scientists in such movies, they get carried away, and Elsa adds a batch of human DNA into the mix.

The result is an even stranger creature, one that is definitively more humanoid, with amphibious lungs, legs like a jackrabbit, and a hairless, cleft head. The doctors recognize the creature, which they dub Dren, as both a miracle and an abomination. Clive wants to dispose of it, but Elsa insists on keeping it for what promises to be an abbreviated life cycle. Not only does the creature not die as fast as they presume it would, it continues to evolve, as does Elsa's attachment to it.

Here the typical horror movie would have the creature escape and spend the last hour stalking unsuspecting victims through the city. But writer/director Vincenzo Natali, who's also responsible for the minimalist sci-fi mystery Cube (but not the wretched sequels), takes a subtler tact that shuns overt scares in favor of more deeply disturbing psychosexual implications.

As Clive and Elsa become more attached to Dren, so does she grow increasingly humanoid, turning from an experiment to a pet to something like a child. (She begins as an entirely computer-generated creation but gradually transforms into a more recognizable approximation of beautiful actress Delphine Chané ac.) This creates all kinds of Freudian dilemmas for the doctors, who are childless lovers, and looses both Elsa's dark maternal turmoil as well as Clive's eerie complicity in Dren's Electra complex.

The casting of Brody and Polley, who are onscreen for pretty much every frame of the movie, is essential. Such an increasingly outlandish film requires some significant suspension of disbelief, and it could easily tip into camp without actors able to both convey the motives and hidden emotions of the characters as they descend into something like madness, but also to seem credible as scientists. Brody and especially Polley evince the kind of base-level intelligence that doesn't make them simply doing math or tinkering with microscopes look entirely absurd, à  la Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough.

Eventually Splice does give way to more familiar horror-movie theatrics, which is a shame, but it at least earns its more conventional final act. The shift from the Cronenbergian to the creature-feature is gradual (and pretty bluntly foreshadowed) enough that it's not so much dissonant as inevitable and disappointing, although the execution of the final, harrowing scenes leaves little to be desired. A couple of nasty twists at the end keep the movie thematically consistent, and despite a few buckets of blood, the real terror remains more psychological than visceral. This is smart, scary stuff, horror done right, and a welcome respite from the rest of the summer's shiny toys and sunny optimism.