by Richard von Busack
When you can make a horror film with guts and elegance, light on blood and pop-ups, heavy on the king-hell disorientation that can only come from a solid premise rooted in primal fear… then you have something to really be proud of. That’s the case in director Vincenzo Natali’s Splice. Natali and his scriptwriters Doug Taylor and Antoinette Terry Bryant name their mad scientists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley). Happily the film doesn’t take those names in vain: Splice earns its comparisons to Bride of Frankenstein in a tale in which the monstrousness is all too human.
Canada’s Natali makes up a vision of the near future through a handful of tricks: ominous worms’-eye shots of a financial district, the sheen of acetate fabric glowing in the business wardrobes, and loads of dim interiors.
Clive and Elsa are underpaid, overworked techs toiling on a creature that will exude horse hormones for veterinary use. After much tinkering, they’ve successfully spliced up an organism that looks like a giant living beef tongue. They call it “Fred”; bored with this work, and not getting the raise they need to move up to “a lifestyle loft”, Clive and Elsa play around with the creation of an illegal and no doubt immoral side project on their own.
Their experiment is a success, in the sense that the creature lives. She’s your classic featherless biped, with knees in the wrong place and six toes, one of the most startling monsters since the “Chicken Lady” at the end of Freaks. “Dren” is the result of a composite performance by Abigail Chu and Delphine Chaneac; they’re collaborating on something that has the treacherous fairy-in-estrus look of an Aubrey Beardsley drawing. Dren is first a pinafored toddler playing with dolls. Later, she’s something wilder and larger, with a barbed prehensile tail. One’s not sure what’s worst about Dren: the human half or the indefinable cocktail of animals that share its make up.
Whether Brody was hired because of his resemblance to Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, or whether he was brought on as a debonair registrar of shock, he’s right in the part: he’s tightly directed and he plays the comedy straight.
Polley looks better than she has in years—she has a touch of succulence for once. The wild story seems to invigorate this actress, usually used for her moodiness and tense intelligence. She gives her lines so much snap they sounds like ad libs: dragged into a meeting for what her boss calls “a dog and pony show,” she quips, “I could splice a dog and a pony!” There’s also an interesting reversal in the usual plot—he wants a baby, she doesn’t, the result of her own trauma about insanity in the family. When Clive tries to get a more specific diagnosis she snarls, “If you could understand crazy, it wouldn’t be crazy.”
That sums up this movie, crazy in a way that’s hard to put the finger on. Collaborator Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) must have encouraged the use of practical effects, puppetry and costumes, and only sparing amounts of CG. That fictional film about Bride of Frankenstein, Gods and Monsters, had a nice mutterance from Ian McKellan. Playing the retired James Whale, McKellan has a laugh at Una Merkel “gobbling like a turkey” but then he catches himself, rumbling “We never laugh at the monster, the monster is noble.” Dren, a child of Frankenstein, has that kind of eerie nobility. Splice’s crafty underpinnings, its subtext about terrors of child-raising and Freudian resentments, has great timeliness. Every fourth movie today is about child rearing, the trauma of every night feeding and diaper-changing.
There’s delightful menace in Splice’s symphonic score and the titles, with words spelled in veins and pulsing ceratoid on some diseased skin. The colors vibrate—hot electric blues and spicy barbecue-sauce reds—and there’s undeniable sophistication in Splice’s pervy comedy, in the diabolically clever way the beast turns this happy couple against each other. This movie looks well-bred.