The 2008 horror film Splinter was directed by Toby Wilkins, whose history in film has been more in the special effects department than behind the lens as director. Sadly his only other film worthy of mention is The Grudge 3 (which I have not seen), the rest of his film work being TV work and shorts. Too bad since Splinter is a stripped down horror film – a cast of six and filmed mostly within one location at a convenience store- whose success rests on some solid direction and acting, along with decent dialog and a believable and scary monster. When the film first came out I read a few bad reviews of it and put off seeing it until only recently. You cannot believe everything you read and some people are obviously just impossible to please. While there is a lot of crap coming out of the horror film industry these days there are good and watchable horror films as well and Splinter is one of them. While far from perfect or flawless it nonetheless move along and delivers the horror goods from start to finish.
With no more than six people in being listed in the film’s credits this is not going to be a teenage body count film, and that genre is still alive and well though it has been trussed up a bit and made less funny the films of the 70’s and 80’s. Everybody in the film seems to be 25 and up and plagued with “real life” problems other than what college will one go to now that high school is wrapping up. City slickers Polly and Seth (Jill Wagner and Paulo Costanzo) are having problems sitting up tents in the wilderness to celebrate their anniversary. Jill is obviously the hard one to please in the relationship and Paulo is trying his best, but he is more comfortable with test tubes than tents and mosquitoes. Jill hammers on him but she herself can’t get the tent up any better and after it is ripped they opt to stay in a hotel for the night. She does the driving –natch- since Pauolo cannot drive a stick. Hey, neither can I. While heading to who knows where they pick up and then are kidnapped by con on the lam Dennis Ferrell (Shea Whigham) and his super tweaker girl friend Lacey (Rachel Kerbs). The stereotypes are not over done and the ride in the SUV is filled with believable dialog and situations for the most part. Things turn for the worse when they run over a spiky creature who we met earlier when it killed a potato chip munching hillbilly. A tire is blown and we find out how whacked Rachel is when she is sure is some old dead pet of her come back. The spikes on this creature –which never find out anything about, long with the parasite that has infected it- not only blows their tire but damages their radiator as well. After it blows they all wind up back at the bas station/convenience store where the redneck was killed at the film’s start. And he is still there, but now he too has become a spiky, thorny creature that jerks and scrambles around in unnerving manner, and is very fast and very intent on killing the three people –yea, tweaker Lacey doesn’t make it- holed up inside the store now.
The film now becomes the three of them against the unrelenting monster outside and against each other. I guess if you want to push it it also becomes them against themselves as well, but I try not to take too many of these movies to that level. We’re not watching Lord Jim here no matter how good it gets. Here is where many a modern horror film may fall all apart, if they haven’t long since crumbled, but Splinter manages to hold on. The characters and situations never get corny or unbelievable. The creature, while locked outside, still poses a threat and is able to get inside –i.e. in the form of a torn off hand- and prevents the trio from leaving. When help arrives it is quickly dispensed with and their limited options for getting out seem like just one bad idea followed by another. Science geek boy Paulo may not be able to pitch a tent or drive a stick but he suddenly comes into his own when trying to figure out what the creature is and how to combat it, all the while being nagged by Polly of course who can’t find it in herself to tell the guy even once “yea honey, go on, we’re listening”. But in the end it is brains over beauty as Paulo figures out the creature is sensitive to cold and comes up with a pretty interesting and tension building method to go out and move a vehicle closer to the door. The film is has other moments like this where the trio try to get some chance at rescue but are thwarted by the creature in one for or another.
There is one sequence I have to make a little gripe about however and sometimes a movie stands or falls on one of these sequences for me. Splinter does not lose it overall enjoyability over this but it did sort of irk me a bit in the suspension of disbelief department. Earlier Dennis is pricked by the creature while checking a tire and subsequently infected. Later the infection begins to take over his arm and the sequence is pretty unnerving. This leads into the realization his arm needs to be amputated, and it is, using first a box cutter and then a cinder block to break the bones. While really freaky and hard to watch it is still unbelievable, and yet not as unbelievable as the following scene where Dennis is sitting drinking beer – a bottle of Excedrin or something next to him- and telling the pair the story of hoe he wound up in the big house with his arm stub all wrapped up. I know the guy is tough but I don’t think beer and aspirin is going to keep him from moaning like a baby after he just had his upper arm bone whacked off with a cinder block. Something else could have done here but it does not ruin the film as a whole.
The effects are mostly practical and the use of CGI is limited to things like the hand flittering about the store floor looking for victims. It is not done poorly really and there is no issue here for me. I am not against CGI effects, but most look more like effects from games like DOOM and are more distracting than anything else. The film seems to sit itself for a sequel and a sequel with an explanation as to what the thing is would be welcome even it does not live up to the first part here. Hopefully Wilkins will be behind the camera in some future horror or sci-fi projects since he certainly has the knack for generating emotional tension and antagonism between characters, as well has supplying ample doses of horror and suspense at just the right moments.