“It’s okay, it’s okay… we’re cutting your arm off.”
I keep meaning to watch things that are on my list. Movies I haven’t seen, movies that are related to the current theme month (Spielberg this month, in case all the related content didn’t tip you off), or films that are celebrating an anniversary (John Carpenter’s The Thing was released on this day in 1982, by the way). Instead, I keep getting distracted, my wandering eye picking some random film out of the crowd of cover thumbnails. This week was no different.
I saw Splinter for the first time roughly four or five years ago. I think it was during 31 Days, where I specifically just pick films randomly to watch based on my mood. It was the poster of the gray, rotted-looking hand with all the black spikes coming out of it that grabbed me then. I remember not expecting much and as a result being pleasantly surprised – especially at the gore effects, which were primarily practical and pretty gruesome.
Which reminds me – this is another film where we’ll be taking a trip down:
(This means gory descriptions and images below.)
I’m a sucker for practical effects and will give leeway to a film – especially a low budget one – where they lean into that field, rather than rely on CGI. Director Toby Wilkins (The Grudge 3) was a special effects artist originally, and you can tell that he’s placed some emphasis on making sure the monster effects work well. While the Splinter monster isn’t necessarily unique – it can count The Thing and even some stuff from the Re-Animator films among its predecessors – it has enough interesting quirks and visual uniqueness to stand out.
I watch Splinter on Amazon Prime, where it’s free for subs (as is also the case with Hoopla). You can watch it free on Vudu, Kanopy and Plex. It’s also available for rent or purchase at the usual online vendors.
There’s a Blu-ray of the film released in 2009. I MIGHT just pick it up at some point, as I’m interested in the special effects and there are a couple of commentary tracks as well.
Splinter is a monster movie first and foremost, and it starts in tried and true monster movie fashion with an introductory glimpse of the creature. A gas station attendant hears something in the grass behind the station and is attacked by something we only see in flashes – it looks like roadkill with spines. Will we see this gas station and attendant later? Is man the warmest place to hide?
From there we’re introduced to two couples – Polly and Seth (Jill Wagner and Paulo Costanzo), an unlikely pair on an equally unlikely camping trip, and Lacey and Dennis (Rachel Kerbs and Shea Whigham), an escaped convict and his drug-addict girlfriend. They end up on a collision course when Dennis and Lacey’s truck breaks down and they hijack Polly and Seth.
It’s a little hard to buy Polly and Seth as a couple, even with the “opposites attract” energy they’re putting out, but the acting is fairly decent and you end up liking them both. (Even if I still think of Wagner as ‘the host on that Wipeout show.’) Kerbs does an okay job as Lacey, but she’s a bit one-note as her withdrawal symptoms get the best of her. The film really belongs to Shea Whigham, though, who just outshines everyone else. He’s just got a certain charisma that makes you root for him, even when he’s being the bad guy and threatening Seth or pistol whipping Polly.
Their vehicle gets a flat tire when they run over an animal, and it’s the first time we get to see the monster after those opening scenes. A bloody, ruined mess of roadkill that twitches and shivers and then tries to attack Seth and Lacey. The group flees – but not before Dennis gets a sliver of something dark and oily looking in his finger.
With the engine overheating they stop at a gas station – see I told you we’d see it again – and Lacey is attacked by the infected gas station attendant. From then on out it’s the classic monster-seige scenario, with Lacey’s corpse re-animated by the infection attacking the station and forcing the unlikely trio to hole up inside. The creature – some sort of infection or fungus according to Seth, whose Biology degree hasn’t really prepared him for this – seems to consume the blood inside its human hosts, which it then re-animates to search for more. Even pieces of a corpse can be re-animated, and there’s a segment with animated fingers moving around that reminded me distinctly of a similar effect in Bride of Re-Animator (just without the eyeballs).
The monster effects are great and gruesome, with blood, oil, bone and skin flapping around and leaving streaks on everything while black spines like thorns flick and twitch with accompanying (disturbing) sound effects. A monster movie really lives or dies on its monster, and Splinter gives us a great one. We also get to see a lot of gory moments, with protruding bone, a severed arm that runs amok and a sheriff’s deputy getting torn in half.
“It, ah… it took half of her.”
These moments are generally not that clear, however, and the flicker-quick editing gets annoying after a while. It’s hard to tell if this is just a general style choice – as this technique was common in early oughts films – or if it’s intended to paper over some shortcomings in the effects. Probably a little of both.
One of the things I enjoy about Splinter is that once the protagonists are trapped and have a decent idea of what’s stalking them they don’t make as many bone-headed decisions as you would expect in a monster movie. Nobody goes outside to get the deputy’s radio – the rig a few wire hangers together to snag it. No one insists they can shoot their way out. And once they realize that Dennis is infected nobody insists that he’ll be fine – they just take his arm off above the elbow. With a box cutter. (It’s one of the more gory bits in the film – especially when they have to break the bone to get it off.)
The one bone-headed move comes after they realize the monster is honing in on their heat. While they can hide from it in the freezers, they know they need to get help somehow. Seth gets the idea of lowering his body temperature below the ambient (if I remember correctly, it’s summer in Texas, and in the 90’s). He then shuffles his way out to the deputy’s car while Dennis and Polly throw firecrackers out the back door to distract the monster – which has become a conglomeration of three corpses at this point, for no real reason that I can determine.
At no point does anyone wonder if the keys are in the car.
We get more monster attacks and a heroic sacrifice (after learning a deep and meaningful secret). There’s some gunfire and a huge explosion, but no real closure – whatever this thing is, it still lurks in the creatures that live in the woods nearby. (A sign pointing to an “experimental” drilling site is the only clue to possible origins.)
The Bottom Line
Splinter is a fun little horror movie that manages to hit all the right notes. It’s low-budget, but it does the most it can with what it has. With some really fantastic practical effects (watching Dennis’ arm break itself in several spots as the infection tries to get Polly and Seth is disturbingly great) and a really good performance by Shea Whigham, it punches way above its weight class. It’s not some hidden classic, but just an enjoyable, gory, monster movie. And that was really all I wanted.