Given all the gene-mapping and cloning these days, you’d think movies would be lousy with Frankenstein scenarios and cautionary tales in which technology outpaces our understanding of how to employ it. But mostly we get zombies, splatter, torture porn, zombies, lame remakes, zombies ... In the context of modern horror, a solid B-movie like Vincenzo Natali’s Splice looks positively splendiferous, with a mixture of icky and poignant and terrifying that works like gangbusters.
It’s David Cronenberg Lite — a dash of The Brood, a soupcon of The Fly — but that’s not a bad thing. It makes you think that Ontario horror has practically become a subgenre, with its faceless, sterile modern settings, wintry and blue-lit, in which new kinds of flesh are grown or hatched. And these mutant cells have a metaphorical component, as much a product of repressed emotions as liberated biochemistry. (Revenge-of-the-repressed stories work especially well in cold climes full of white people.)
In Splice, Canada’s own Sarah Polley and skinny-faced Adrien Brody play Clive and Elsa, celebrated nerd-dreamboat scientists for a pharmaceutical company — called, as it happens, NERD, for “Nucleic Exchange Research Development.” When we meet them, they’re delivering a new life-form from a pulsing ovum in an incubator — a giant wormy mass from which they hope to mine all kinds of patent-worthy medical procedures. But then company bigwigs order them to stop researching and start generating capital. So Clive and Elsa think: Why not mix in human DNA and see what grows? Just to, you know, prove we can.
It’s fun to watch their faces in the blue-gray half-light as they stick long needles into amniotic sacs and stare into computer screens and mutter things like, “Why isn’t it taking?” and “Wait — I think I’ve got it. Realign the diggihoop proton volnoid acid.” Scientific things. The science jargon is so convincing that when something finally “takes,” the fetus comes — unbelievably quickly — to term, a tendriled thingummy leaps into Elsa’s face, and she shouts, “It’s alive!” it takes a second to realize that Colin Clive shouted the same damn thing in 1931 over Boris Karloff.
What’s endlessly fascinating in Splice is trying to get a handle on what the creature is. Elsa calls it “Dren,” which is nerd spelled backward, and it’s apparently female. But female what? Now it’s a pile of flesh with eyes on either side of its head. Then, quickly, since its growth is madly accelerated, it looks humanoid, albeit with other components (amphibious, avian), plus a long tail with a lethal spike. It has no language you’d recognize — clicks and rattles and chiry-chirpy-cheep-cheeps. When Dren makes too much of a racket, Elsa and Clyde sneak her into the basement. She’s wearing a cute little dress and carrying a doll. She’s so huggable, says Elsa, who couldn’t love her?
You know no good will come from this, right? But the way in which it all goes bad has a distinctly human dimension. It turns out that Elsa, so militantly maternal, had an abusive mom, which means when Dren gets bigger (it takes a month or two) and becomes more adolescent-bratty, something dark and scary in Elsa comes to the surface. And edgy Clive, who wanted to destroy Dren, begins to soften. Soon this high-tech Frankenstein acquires a vein of freaky, low-tech Gothic psychodrama. What's in Elsa and Clive's DNA that makes them lose it so epically?
Brody and Polley are thoroughly convincing when their characters are brilliant, and only slightly less so when they turn crazy-dumb. But then, Dren could drive anyone mad. The Paris-born actress Delphine Chaneac plays her with help from makeup and creature-effects designer Howard Berger, and she has her own mythical beauty. Her head tilts, birdlike, as her wide almond eyes fix on — what? What does she see? She totters on colt legs (like a minotaur) on bird feet, but with a ballerina’s willowy poise. Is she an angel? A demon? Something in the middle? Toward which end of the demon-angel spectrum?
Too bad the climax is botched, rushed when the action needs to slow down and achieve a kind of operatic grandeur. But if gene-splicing can give us monsters as poetically strange as Dren in Splice, it bodes well for the future of our horror movies. Our species is probably fucked, though.