May 9, 2014

UNSUNG HORRORS: SPLINTER

Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

 So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now…one at a time.

Dir. Toby Wilkins
2008
United States
Magnet Releasing

"Make it count."

Low budget filmmaking is tough, especially when it comes to horror. If we're taking on just the low budget medium, a lack of financing can affect the final output. Lesser money can only afford the lesser actors, cinematographers, editors, composers, production designers, etc., and a weakness apart of any of these individuals can severely handicap a project. In the horror genre, you have all of these risky areas, but then in addition, you have the inherent prejudice against the genre for the years and years of cheap imitators, exploitation romps, depictions of "glorified" violence, and on and on. Lord knows I certainly feel this way, and I'm supposed to love this shit. Because they were grandfathered in, it's easy to forget that watermarks in the genre – Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Night of the Living Dead – were made on the amount of money you found beneath your car seat the last time you dropped your iPhone. Even today, Hollywood approaches to the horror genre – unless of course they're greenlighting a dripping CGI mess of an extravaganza – are apt to keep the budget low. In case you haven't noticed, Hollywood's track record in giving us decent quality horror films (the recent Insidious and Sinister don't count, as they were both made independently) are about on par with those low budget filmmakers who are either genuinely trying to make something good or simply trying to create something stupid they know they can sell for the bottom shelf at the video store. (Oh shit, I just totally dated myself.)

Enter Splinter, a little backwoods monster movie that nearly came out of nowhere and personified how so much could be done with so little.


Polly (Jill Wagner) and Seth (Paulo Costanzo, aka the stoner from Road Trip who believed he was destined for great things) are celebrating their anniversary of sorts in a far less glamorous place than Cancun or Aruba. Instead they're jeeping into the heart of the wilderness with nothing but dufflebags of clothes and some camping gear. Her idea more than his, he attempts to play the role of outdoorsman, but it becomes increasingly obvious he's meant for motel beds and flourescent lighting rather than tent assembly and gazing up at the stars.

Meanwhile, a mile down the road and standing outside a broken-down car, Dennis (the immeasurably cool Shea Whigham) and Lacey (Rachel Kerbs) are on a rendezvous of their own – one that has them fleeing from the law. Tensions run high between them, but Dennis has his sights on getting out of dodge, pronto, and Lacey has her sights on something else – anything else, desperately – as long as it comes in pill form.

Eventually, these two couples run afoul of each other, and at gunpoint, Dennis and Lacey force themselves into the car – and lives – of Polly and Seth. With one half of our on-screen couples taken hostage by the other, the new foursome simply drive down the desolate wilderness-surrounded road...until they run over something strange and suffer a flat tire because of it. Seth and Lacey find the thing they ran over...something covered in unnaturally large splinters...something that most assuredly be dead, but attacks them anyway.

The couples speed off in the repaired jeep, unsure of what they had seen, but Seth, who is currently in the process of obtaining his PhD in biology, attempts to make sense of the very dead thing covered in a blanket of splinters, which seemed to multiply across the ruined piece of roadkill, keeping it alive.

A hissing and smoking radiator has them pulling over at a gas station, where they encounter a former splinter creature victim, and one of their numbers becomes infected. Locking themselves into the gas station to hide from the strange things stalking them, they're forced to rely on their wits, a healthy array of convenience store items, and each other, if they want to survive.

And things get awfully bloody.


What we have with Splinter is a loving homage to creature features that came before it, mixed with zombie films that have directly inspired it. Clearly in love with John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, George Romero's Dead series, and holy crap, even TremorsSplinter takes the "rules" of the zombie film, marries them to the absurdity of the nature/science run amok sub-genre, and creates a wonderfully clever and at times disturbing resurrection-gone-bad grimy gore fest.

You will find no CGI here; nothing but a collection of unique and imaginative practical effects. A dismembered hand covered in needles crawling across the floor like a spider recalls The Thing (and perhaps Evil Dead II), and the ruined bodies of anyone unfortunate to become infected send-up Peter Jackson's early kiwi splatter romps. Added to this are a collection of camera tricks nearing one hundred years old in their construction and are still just as effective.

The best part of all this? Taking a page out of Night of the Living Dead, there is no explanation – no why – for the events unfolding. A brief, one-second shot of a sign – something about keeping away from an oil company's experimental extraction site – is all we're provided, and we've seen enough of these flicks before to let our imaginations fill in the gaps.

Shea Whigham's presence here is the smartest casting decision. With Denny, Whigham plays a total bastard, but one you know from the start you're going to end up rooting for. Yeah, he's a thief, and he and Lacey are on the run from the law, but his main want for freedom is not to avoid an indeterminate amount of time behind bars, but so he can get his drug-addict girlfriend out of the country and into Mexico, where he'll focus on trying to get her clean. Whigham plays this incredibly well; he is a bastard, but he's also the kind of bastard you'd hope to have around when shit hits the fan. He's got both a cowboy's balls and a thief's unscrupulousness, both of which come in handy as our characters find themselves confined to one place and warding off attacks from the slowly growing numbersof splinter creatures. And wouldn't you know it? Turns out he's a big ol' softy, too, just like the rest of us.

Whigham has done nothing but expand his increasingly impressive career. (Motherfucker's only been in three films nominated for Best Picture over the last two years, as well as appeared in both "Boardwalk Empire" and "True Detective.") Splinter was not one of his first major roles, but rather an interesting stepping stone for him along the way. He was far enough along in his career that he could have easily not taken part, but I'm glad he did, as the film is all the better for it. And despite all the bad-asses he'd already played, and all the bad-asses he'd yet to play, I guarantee he'll never do anything as bad-ass as shooting a shotgun one-handed, since his other arm has long been torn off, tossing it in the air to load another shell, and shooting it again. (Don't get me wrong, Wagner and Costanzo as the kidnapped couple forced to align with a "bad guy" in order to survive do just fine with their roles. But this is Shea Whigham's film.)

Speaking of smart casting, enjoy the appearance of the opening gas station victim, played by Charles Baker. Perhaps you know him by another name: Skinny Pete, from the pop culture phenomenon that is "Breaking Bad."

"That's Kafkaesque."

Toby Wilkins' direction over Splinter is just fantastic. The chaotic camera does a nice job of masking the assuredly cheap and simple creatures while also creating a deep frustration within his audience, because we just want to see this thing – every ugly nook and cranny. And among the many great set-pieces on hand, one in particular – which has one main character, er, let's say impaired, and making his way toward a getaway car – which will literally have you screaming at the screen for him to move his fucking ass. It's a sequence designed explicitly to have you wondering if he'll make it, and it works like gangbusters.

Toby Wilkins, where the fuck did you go? I mean, okay – The Grudge 3 didn't work out, and I don't at all blame you for hopping on board that franchise and working alongside Hollywood heavyweight Sam Raimi, even if the film was always fated to go direct-to-video. And I don't at all fault you for The Grudge 3 turning out kind of...well...shitty. Let's just pretend it didn't even happen. I don't look at such a film and even remotely think "a Toby Wilkins film." At best, I consider it a minor diversion on the road that will eventually lead you back to the world of horror features, where I know you'll once again give us something worth a damn.

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