Sunday, 4 October 2015

October Nightmares #4: Splinter (2008)

Oh, balls. There I was sat making notes for a review of The Thing when it suddenly dawned on me that I had already reviewed it for this blog. It was a trifle embarrassing. Like how the Greeks must have felt when trying to pull the Trojan Horse stunt a second time, only for their enemies to horrifically burn them in their wooden construction. Fortunately, there's a similar body horror film that I happen to also really like: Toby Wilkins' Splinter (2008). Phew. Out of the many sub-genres of horror, body horror is the one that has the most effect on me. I'm one of those squeamish individuals who can be held captive in their bathroom by a stray toenail on the floor.

Nothing is more disturbing than the creepy internal processes that the human body undergoes. Body horror capitalises on this fear and exaggerates it by taking it to the logical extremes. The degeneration and annihilation of the physical form is at the heart of body horror. It's frightening just how psychotic the genre is about corrupting humanity. Infectious fungal diseases, invasive parasites, gross mutations; limbs growing out of unnatural places, twisting and impossible forms - it's like an episode of Embarrassing Bodies as conceptualised by H. R. Giger. Splinter sits firmly on the parasite and anatomically incorrect creature part of the body horror spectrum. And there I was thinking that it was a film about the greatest horror of all: having a tiny shard of wood embed itself into your skin.

The film begins the only way a modern horror can: with a naive young couple en route to a romantic retreat to the woods. As Christopher Robin might have said: "not another fucking wood". Just once I want to see a horror film that takes place in a factory that manufactures memory foam mattresses and ice cream. This ill-advised getaway is interrupted, however, when the prerequisite upheaval occurs and plunges them into chaos - in this particular instance a car-jacking by an thuggish fugitive and his cohort. Shea Whigham's cut-throat convict serves to push the plot along the necessary path of idiocy and poor judgement, so that Wilkins is able exploit the conventions of the slasher movie. The convict's short-sighted determination is what leads to the group becoming trapped in a remote gas station, hunted by a strange parasitic monstrosity and its...progeny, if you will. A total idiot ball of a plot.
It may seem as though I'm treating Splinter in much the same way that David Cameron treats his pigs. But Splinter is genuinely one of my favourite horror films of the past decade. The clich├ęd opening serves only to belie the creativity at work throughout the movie. Like its spiritual forebear The Thing, Wilkins' creation feels like a believable entity - one that is unwavering in its sole mission to survive and propagate. It repurposes the battered and maltreated corpses of its victims into elaborate marionettes, lurching them along on broken limbs and contorting their bodies to better suit its needs. One imaginative sequence sees an afflicted police officer attempting to force its way into the gas station, reaching for the protagonists through the serving hatch. Unable to get to its victims, it actively removes its arm by paring off the flesh using a jagged surface. The limb becomes a new life form, able to act independently of its body.

The sheer simplicity of Splinter's antagonist is what makes it nightmarish. Resourceful, single-purposed, and durable, the parasite poses an inexhaustible threat to the characters. This is a creature capable of adapting to even the most ruinous of conditions. I was left wanting to know more about this parasite and where it came from, which is always a sign of strong story telling. Body horror is superb at portraying the alien. Cronenberg's Videodrome revels in its disgusting depictions of bodily corruption but makes little effort in explaining what is causing them. Similarly, The Thing remains ambiguous as to the actual nature of its titular monster. Splinter stays with you because it creates more questions than it dares to answer; the truth is this gangrenous elephant in the room, pulsating with fleshy boils.

What really holds Splinter back is Wilkins' patchy directing. The plot may be rather dopey and end with the inevitable sequel hook, but it still serves its purpose. Whereas the on-screen action is often rather unfocused, and at times creates difficultly in ascertaining what is supposed to be happening. Curiously this seems to be more of an artistic choice rather than a necessity needed to mask ropey special effects. Had the effects been at the level of one of those crappy seventies Sinbad movies I might have been positively disposed towards Wilkins' directorial proclivities. But this is not the case. Never has there been a more gruesome display of corrupted flesh since the day I hit puberty and inherited the acne curse.