Classic Shit: Splinter (2008)

Splinter

Splinter (2008) Dir. Toby Wilkins

Splinter has a fairly innovative monster, something that exists adjacent to creatures like those found in The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You’ve seen this kind of monster before but never quite like this, and what it does to your body is very, very unpleasant. The film’s story, however, is never as innovative as the antagonist creature: A handful of people are trapped within an enclosed space, fighting to survive. The narrative’s a perfect example of formula storytelling, but it works because 1) in a movie like this the story should service the monster, and 2) all of the performers deliver in the acting department, which goes a long way in patching over obvious budgetary shortcomings.

Dispense with the trappings of a laborious backstory (ala Evil Dead 2) and let’s get down to the mayhem.

Splinter has mayhem to spare.

I’m not in the habit of spoiling a movie, so I won’t really go into too much detail regarding the monster. I will say that it doesn’t really dissolve you like The Blob or assimilate you like The Thing, nor is replacing you like a Body Snatcher. When this critter gets a hold on you, then you are in it for the long haul . . . unless you are a fan of severe emergency amputation. But even after that, what do you do with the pieces you cut off?

There’s a scene about halfway through the film’s running time that perfectly captures the horrifying effects of the organism as described above, including said amputation. It is a showstopper, too, sporting the best effects and performances in the film. The scene is tense, fairly graphic, and squirm-inducing in the ways that only good body horror can be.

Movies like Splinter—because they are light on story and heavy on monster—have a tendency to also be light on acting and rely on their thespians to simply react instead of act. And don’t get me wrong, you have a lot of reacting here, but Splinter has a lot of honest-to-goodness acting, too.

My initial draw to this film was Paulo Costanzo, the Canadian actor who you may remember from the comedy Road Trip (and put to much better use as a headliner in Everything’s Gone Green). He’s a talented guy who exudes an immediate affable charm and that talent is put to good use in Splinter, where Paulo plays a PhD student whose character traits hew much closer to the damsel in distress than anything recognizable as your typical male action hero. He doesn’t know how to put up a tent, can’t drive stick and the guy even breaks down and cries. He’s likable and believable, and I really attribute that to Costanzo as well as the films trio of screenwriters; they imbue the character with an equal amount of brains and balls.

Jill Wagner plays an outdoors enthusiast whose celebrating the anniversary of she and Costanzo’s character. It is Wagner who displays the alpha male traits that are missing from Costanzo. She’s an instigator and the type of person whose temperament earns her the nickname “firecracker.” Early in the film, Wagner’s character is the one that’s the strongest willed. When the couple finds themselves the victims of a kidnapping, it is Wagner that keeps the two of them in the criminal’s good graces. It isn’t until her survival instincts turn to desperation that Costanzo steps up to the challenge of being a hero, as well.

When Splinter was first released, I found the protagonist’s gender-role reversal a nice change of pace from the typical Hollywood fair. But that wasn’t the only surprise it had in store. Turns out the loutish, (as described by a character in the film) white-trash antagonist is more compelling than either lead.

Shea Whigham, at the time, was something of a revelation in this movie. He is this production’s MVP, for sure. Whigham’s character has an arc that sees him begin as antagonist and end up turning into a reluctant savior. So very often, a film like this makes the human antagonist an insufferable ass, the kind of person that you want to see get decimated by the monster. Shea’s character definitely starts that way, but the execution of his character makes him a person for whom the audience can and will feel closer and closer to, so when decimation rears its ugly head, then you really feel for the guy. No one wants to go through what this guy goes through.

Shea is not a typical leading man. His distinct features remind me of a strange mix of Robert Carlyle and Steve Buscemi. His character reveals quite a lot during the course of the film and because of that he sticks with you after the whole thing’s said and done. (When I first saw Splinter at an early press screening in 2008, Whigham’s performance was such a disarming one that I immediately thought to look him up on IMDB and was happy to see that he was becoming a very busy actor: eight projects in 2008 and another three were already in post for 2009, and countless projects since then. I expected to see this guy turn out some great performances and I haven’t been disappointed.)

This was the first feature for the director, Toby Wilkins, and he showed a lot of promise. His next feature was a sequel in The Grudge franchise, so let’s hope he can rise above the material he was saddled with, because he hasn’t made a feature since The Grudge 3 bombed at the box office. Hollywood is a fickle beast, and less forgiving than I.

Splinter is a solid entry in the horror genre, working both as a monster movie and as a body-horror film. Definitely worth checking out.

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[This article originally appeared at We Are Movie Geeks]

*Classic Shit! started in 2009 as a semi-regular article for the website We Are Movie Geeks. It has been on hiatus for a long time, and I’ve decided to finally resurrect the column, reprinting older pieces as well as adding new ones, all of which will focus on film.

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