Saturday, April 18, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Splinter (2008)

It's an age-old debate in the horror genre: analysis or action?

What's more imperative in the tense, grueling crucible for survival: assessing a nightmare scenario fully? Or moving fast and getting the hell out of Dodge before things escalate?

That's the driving character conflict that underlines director Toby Wilkins' low-budget but high-impact horror movie, Splinter (2008). This impressive and intense film lands a young, likable couple, Polly (Jill Wagner) and Seth (Paulo) in extreme danger from a murderous, ancient and very hungry parasite in the ancient (400 year old...) woods of Oklahoma.

In the thick of night, the duo seeks refuge at an isolated gas station along with a violent criminal, Dennis Farrell (Shea Whigham) and his drugged-out girlfriend, Lacy (Rachel Kerbs). As the parasite multiplies (or rather...grows...) and lays siege to the filling station, Polly and Seth countenance the terror they face in very different, even contradictory ways.

Polly is impulsive and quick to act; quick to grab a baseball bat or even plot to burn the gas station down (to draw the attention of a fire crew). By contrast, Seth almost immediately adopts a dispassionate attitude of "data gathering" and seeks to learn as much about the enigmatic enemy as possible before indulging in rash, irreversible action. Much of the film meditates on the way each character''s distinctive approach succeeds; how each approach fails...with bloody consequences in some cases. I don't think it's any coincidence that Seth's analytical approach to resolving the crisis involves freezing (or dropping his body temperature), and that Polly's early gambit (with Farrell) is fire-starting. Each path reflects the character's true nature. Seth metaphorically runs cold; Polly runs hot.

The best horror movies gaze at this very human dilemma: how do we arrive at our most important decisions and what are their consequences? Consider, for example, Romero's Night of the Living Dead, in which Ben and Cooper argued (fruitlessly and endlessly...) over the best sanctuary location, the basement or the first floor of an under-siege farmhouse. Splinter actually merits comparison to that classic because it dwells meaningfully and unceasingly in the details of a similar claustrophobic debate. Science or violence? Hot or cold? Run or stay? Roll the get once chance.

I hasten to add, these are not irrelevant issues in the national context today. We're stuck in Iraq because few in the Bush Administration apparently expended the time or energy to consider and weigh the likely consequences of a rash, unnecessary war. And today, just twelve weeks into a "cool" new administration, some people are thirsting for more aggressive, immediate action and less recitation of context and analyses; they think talk is cheap and care about quick results.

What appears absent in our hyper-polarized national conversation -- but what Splinter implicitly offers -- is an ameliorating sense of balance, particularly in the introduction of a character who can bridge the gulf between action and analysis, and travel back and forth between at the right moment. In the film, this quality arrives in the unlikeliest and most unexpected of sources: the Carpenter-esque anti-hero and heir to Assault on Precinct 13's Napoleon Wilson: Dennis Farrell. Why, Farrell even gets his own catchphrase ("fuck it,") much like famous Carpenter anti-establishment mavericks Wilson, Plissken, Nada and Desolation Williams.

But Farrell's most significant quality is his capacity to roll with the punches and not stay irrationally anchored to one particular viewpoint. He is introduced as menace, harbors a few secrets (including the not-entirely-unexpected secret of his innate nobility...) but ultimately saves the day. He succeeds where Seth and Polly -- to some extent - -have failed, though there's no comfort in it for him. At one point, Farrell is even infected by the monster: he's hot and cold, victim and victimizer, criminal and hero.

At first, I wasn't certain I was really going to regard Splinter very highly. The preamble -- which involves a redneck in a lawn chair getting attacked by a contaminated rodent menace -- relies on the all-to-easy easy vernacular of quick flash cuts and shaky slow-mo photography that you've seen in approximately million low-budget horror films of late. The visual design of the film is mostly uninspired too: it's all herky-jerky shaky cam; much like your average episode of (new) Battlestar Galactica. But I won't mince words: this film deserves your patience and attention. It builds to a fever pitch, develops characters you come to care about, and is unrelenting in the varied (successful) attempts to scare you.

Beyond the clever construction of the script (by Wilkins, Ian Shorr and Kai Barry) -- which highlights the hot versus cold/action versus analysis dynamic -- Wilkins hooked me with his gruesome, inventive monster (one that boasts a creepy, rigor-mortis-type gait but isn't a traditional zombie...) and his disciplined sense of pace and ever-escalating horror. One thoroughly impressive set-piece involving Seth's attempt to wrangle a police radio through a small glass window -- utilizing a wire hanger -- builds and builds until you want to crawl out of your seat with a combination of mounting frustration and terror. Another scene, featuring box cutters and a cinder block is so harrowing -- but approached with such seriousness -- that you can't look away (no matter how much you might want to.)

And this brings up another aspect of Splinter that I admired. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wilkins doesn't go in for snark or easy laughs. He hasn't directed the movie to show-off his knowledge of movie history or show us how smart he is about film technique and post-modernism. Instead, he carefully crafts a solid terror trap, one in which all angles of the story have been considered, and narrative consistency is highlighted. In short, the director treats the material with respect and seriousness, and his sincere, non-jokey approach makes you care all the more about these imperiled characters. I could contrast this film with Feast for instance: similar plot, similar location, but all style and no substance. Just easy laughs and campy horror. Not so here.

And although at first I wanted to scribble on my notepad that Wilkins boasts an apparent pathological aversion to long-shots and establishing shots, I can detect now how his visual m.o. (medium shots and close-ups) deliberately crafts a kind of "tunnel-vision" sense of immediacy with the characters. The rigorous tight framing aids the audience in identifying with the leads (all very good actors) at the same time that that it affords us the possibility of numerous foreground and background shocks and jolts. That's exactly the kind of equation you want in a siege picture of this type. The last hour of the film is almost entirely set in a gas station interior (essentially one room...) but you never feel bogged down. Trapped, yes, but not bogged down. At just about 85 minutes, the movie is mean and lean. There's not a wasted breath or moment.

You know, I talk a lot here on the blog about how important it is for cinematic form to echo cinematic content. Splinter accomplishes that feat, but it also does more: it viscerally recreates Seth and Polly's war inside you, the viewer. While watching, you may find your intellect constantly at war with your pounding heart. You will feel downright schizophrenic as you shout at the screen for the characters to wait, or hurry; to hide or get moving. Thus Splinter lives up its advertising: It'll get under your skin.

1 comment:

  1. This was Wilkins first feature and a great effort. He comes off as series director for the very interesting 'Devils Trade' webisodes that can be seen on Fearnet.

    It is to my disappointment that this film did not go on to open more doors for more directorial efforts in features for Mr. Wilkins. He followed this film up with...yawn 'Grudge 3'. And then with the blink-and-you-missed-it 'Teen Wolf' series. I can only hope that he establishes himself in the horror genre because he is definitely, IMO, in the class of Ti West and James Wan.