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Splice: Who's the monster - the creator or the deadly creation?

As Splice progresses, it’s less and less clear whether it’s the scientist Elsa (Sarah Polley, right) or her creation Dren (Delphine Chanéac that is to be feared.

Warner Bros.

3 out of 4 stars



  • Directed by Vincenzo Natali
  • Written by Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor
  • Starring Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody
  • Classification: 18A

A good horror flick always does metaphoric battle with our interior demons, and Splice summons them in impressive numbers. On the surface, it's a classic Frankenstein's monster tale, albeit ramped up to a modern lab and outfitted with the latest in biotechnology. Yet below that, in a vast sub-layer of twisted psychology, there's a whole lot going on. Perhaps too much - this is one of those genre films that really wants to show off some smarts, to set itself above the common beast, but that cerebral badge sometimes seems a bit ponderous and, in a realm where the visceral rules, a little counterproductive. Then again, in these summer days of brain-dead blockbusters, why complain?

Long-time partners in and out of the laboratory, Elsa and Clive (Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody) are a matched pair of not-so-mad scientists. We first see them genetically splicing another matched set, a couple of pulsating pupae coyly named Fred and Ginger - when not jitterbugging in their incubator, they serve as freshly minted protein for hungry livestock. The lab's head honchos couldn't be happier - seems there's big money in the feed business.

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Of course, being hubristic geniuses, Elsa and Clive want to push the genetics that crucial step further, whipping up a "human/animal hybrid." Now you might well argue that, from the annals of Greek myth to the history of political despots to the playing fields of sport, such hybrids aren't exactly in short supply. No matter. Off go the deep thinkers to their furtive cloning and, right quick, out pops (and hops) a squeaky little thing coated in slime and boasting a tail.

Once we get some windy medical exposition out of the way ("It would help the millions of people who are suffering and dying"), this is where matters start to defy our expectations and thus get interesting. Daddy Clive wants to abort this slimy experiment but Mommy Elsa argues strenuously to bring it to term. Soon the thing has a name - Dren (anagram of "nerd"). And then it has a sex - female. And damned if Baby Dren, although missing a few fingers and toes, doesn't sprout into the cutest of tykes, all wide-eyed and spiffed up in her tiny blue dress. Sure, she cries a bunch, is a fussy eater and often stinks, but Mommy is bonding fast - Daddy not so much.

Alas, fated to age at an accelerated rate (plots love that conceit), Dren grows up fast into an aggressive teenager, with venom in her tail and the urge to fly on newly protruding wings. That's when the parental dynamic changes. A suddenly cruel Mom, who has dark maternal issues buried in her own past, is literally tying the girl down, while a confused Dad finds himself predatorily attracted to Dren's youthful flirtatiousness. With that change comes a corresponding shift in our sympathies and our fears: Just who is the monster here, and where exactly on the human/animal spectrum does that monstrousness reside?

This thematic evolution emerges slowly over two acts, even as the picture quietly sustains, like a 60-cycle hum in the background, the conventional element of Frankenstein suspense. Because this much is certain: There's a beast somewhere in this jungle, just waiting to spring.

When it does, the demons, both real and metaphoric, disappoint a tad. The climax proves more whimper than bang, although the story is easily strong enough to grip us tightly until then. So are the performances. These typically aren't actors' movies, yet Polley and Brody both round out their characters nicely, giving them credible weight but not an excess of gravity. Better yet, despite acting under the computer-generated encumbrances of that monkey tail and those centaur legs, Delphine Chanéac does something remarkable with Dren - she makes her a disturbingly sexy thing.

As for Vincenzo Natali's direction, the glass-is-half-full crowd will laud it as efficient and unostentatious, others as merely workmanlike and lacking in style. Either way, he succeeds in driving home the domestic point because, ultimately, this picture itself is a hybrid, marking that scary place where the horror film meets the relationship movie. There, the mundane gives birth to the monster, the one - big or small, male or female, young or old - who sits across the kitchen table and changes its mood without cause and its look without warning and prompts that most terrible cry of alarm: "I don't even know who you are any more."

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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