★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Too bad the director and editors didn’t have more faith in their own monster effects.
Almost. Almost. This Toby Wilkins directed film was almost a great creature feature / body horror indie flick. With better editing and camera work, this could have been side by side with The Monster as a “get stuck on a road trip with a nasty bugger” hidden gem of a movie. Magnet Releases has enough horror productions behind it to suggest real promise here. The track record includes some of my favorites, like XX, Troll Hunter, Rubber, The Host, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, and VHS. With all the talk of BlumHouse, Magnet can match them low budget indie horror film, movie for movie. But, Splinter fails to live up to the rest of Magnet’s A-level canon by starting out with a limping storyline, though it gathers momentum and scares in the second act, and then ultimately lets down slightly in the third act.
CAUTION, SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
We are introduced to a bikini loving gas station attendant, Blake, who encounters a raccoon that looks to have bred with a sea urchin. Though… to be honest, it takes a repeated viewing to tell that’s what attacked him. He screams… and ROLL INTRO! The focus of the film rests on two couples. One couple is a confident and sexy Polly (Jill Wagner) and her awkward biology doctoral student boyfriend Seth (Paolo Costanzo), who we meet on a camping excursion recently undone by their inability to pitch a tent. They encounter the other couple, a desperate on-the-lam pair of meth addict Lacey (Rachel Kerbs) and her aggressive con-on-the run boyfriend Dennis (Shea Wigham). Encounter might not be the best description here… Polly and Seth get kidnapped by Dennis when they pull their SUV over to assist Lacey by the side of the road.
After a bit of by-the-book kidnapper and kidnappee talk, they run over what is most likely that same raccoon-urchin that attacked the gas-station attendant. The spines manage to blow out a tire and blow out the radiator, forcing the truck off the road. They repair the tire, but not before Lacey attempts to rescue the roadkill (She assumes it’s her pet… meth does weird things to your mind, yeah?) Dennis also pricks himself with one of those urchins spines. That can’t be good! Oh, the road kill also starts flopping and growing longer spines. Also, not good.
Our band of misfits staggers into a gas station (yes, that gas station) to fuel up, and when Lacey attempts to use the bathroom out back, she stumbles upon Blake, the gas station attendant, who clearly has a case of the bad sea urchin blues… and is morphing into something rather less than human. Or, more than human. Lacey runs back to the truck in a panic but is cut down by the pursuing Blake-thing. The remainder of the crew scampers into the gas station, along with the severed hand of Lacey, which continues to move around ala The Evil Dead, and grows some more nasty spines. The three survivors retreat to the storage room in the back and try to muster up an escape plan. A cop, who has apparently been tracking Dennis, shows up and calls for Dennis to surrender himself. The group pleas with the cop to get back in her car and call for backup, but her zealousness gets the better of her and she ignores their warnings, which proves to be her swift demise as the creature rips her in half.
As the creature begins to coalesce with the various bodies that it is feeding upon (it’s both feeding upon and then absorbing the victim’s mass) Seth, Polly, and Dennis come up with a number of schemes to get out. Dennis then begins to transform, due to the pinprick he suffered when changing the truck tire. This leads to some tough decisions and a fateful last-ditch run for safety. I won’t spoil it ALL for you… but the ending, though exciting, felt forced and ill-advised.
This movie, in the end needed more trust.
They needed to trust that they have a clever design for their monster. Whenever they filmed the monster, or the monster parts, the film slipped into shaky-cam mode. Shaky cam mode with cuts that were too jarring to make sense of what was happening. When Lacey gets cut down, I couldn’t tell that she actually had been killed, until Polly announced that the monster nearly cut her in half. Though, in hind site, she looked like she was only cut up a little bit, and stuck full of spines. Still… in a moment where you wanted definitive evidence of how nasty the monster was, it all passed in a blur of motion that was terribly confusing. Compare that to The Thing, which lovingly held the camera steady as the monster transformed and launched its attacks on the crew. The design of the monster seemed interesting enough… but maybe when the director and editor looked at it they thought… maybe not scary enough.
They needed to trust that they had characters capable of reasonably smart choices. Having Seth as part of the cast, was for him to be there and be the science nerd who put all the pieces together. The ludicrous decision at the end of the movie to try and cool himself down because that would fool the monster, (They figure out that the monster doesn’t see them in the cold storage room) was a HUGE mistake. The three of them could have easily stayed in the pantry, where the monsters evidently couldn’t find them, and there was plenty to eat and drink. Eventually, help would come. The other plan that would have worked, which they HALF implemented, was to use fireworks as a distraction. They could have easily done that ploy without the freeze-o-rama that they tried to pull off, and just made a mad dash to the car. The monster would still have been playing with the fireworks.
And, finally, the producers and Wilkins needed to trust that they had good actors capable of handling better dialogue. I do credit the movie with giving these characters decent story arcs. Dennis reveals that he’s a thug with a heart of gold, capable of heroism and sacrifice. Seth shows that he can grow a spine and display courage and daring. Lacey… well Lacey was a hot mess and then becomes a monster. But all of the characters started out as annoying pastiches of character. In establishing the baseline, they all were annoying. I wanted to slap Seth around for initially being so soft, but he was saved by his story arc. Also, Shea Whigham was prone to reducing his drawl to a mumble, to the point where I wanted subtitles. All of the leads went on to solid Hollywood careers, and have proven to be capable of handling better dialogue if given to them. I realized where I recognized Jill Wagner… she’s the sideline reporter for the gonzo game show Wipeout! OK, maybe Wagner’s not the best actress in Hollywood, but she was the most solid performer in this movie.
That said, Splinter is exciting and clever at times. The monster is an original take, and I always appreciate an homage to The Thing or The Evil Dead. I like the simplicity of the story. If something like this intrigues you, I’d say check it out. It’s still fun, despite its flaws. However, I would first send you to the superior story, in The Monster.
Splinter is rated R, and is available for rent on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and YouTube.