Splice (2009)

Splice first published by Film4

Synopsis: In this updated riff on Frankenstein, directed and co-written by Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Cypher), scientific hubris and tainted love combine to create an unstable and dangerous hybrid.

Review: Some couplings just were not meant to be. When Splice begins, young, high-powered biochemists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) have just created a male and female pair of slug-like genetic hybrids, wittily dubbed ‘Fred and Ginger’, to enact what the scientist couple refers to as the ‘dance’ of DNA. The names of their previous, failed hybrid couples, visible on a shelf of sample jars, display similar film savvy, although out of ‘Bogie and Bacall’, ‘Sid and Nancy’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, only the first suggests anything like conjugal bliss (and on-screen, even Humphrey and Lauren appeared together mostly in dark, violent thrillers). For all the choreographed harmony that their names conjure, we sense Fred and Ginger too will come to a sticky end.

Though they may not realise it, Clive and Elsa themselves are a couple caught up in this cinematic naming game. After all, Colin Clive played Dr Frankenstein in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), while Elsa Lanchester played the monstrous Bride – and sure enough, here the human characters are no less a messy mismatch than their medically constructed offspring, in a film that brings home the idea that we are all products of our upbringing as much as our genes.

Against both the law and the express instructions of their pharma company’s CEO (Simona Maicanescu) and their lab’s manager (David Hewlett), Clive and Elsa engage in an underground experiment splicing animal and human DNA. But as we observe the strange creature (nicknamed ‘Dren’ – a backwards code) that emerges from their endeavours and mutates from a helpless baby to a rebellious, sexually curious teen and then into a wholly different kind of adult, we also bear witness to the unfolding of a bizarre tragedy, in which the many flaws and foibles of the ‘parents’ are passed on to the child, with nurture playing at least as big a role as nature.

This could almost be a family drama of dysfunction – an impression that all the freakydeaky genetics and bloody body horror somehow serve to reinforce as much as to undermine. For sure there is effects-driven grotesquery aplenty, but this seems merely to reflect the perversion that was in fact already an integral part of the characters’ (especially Elsa’s) monstrous make-up from the start, now at last made flesh (and blood and feather) in genre’s most tangible forms.

As in all the best creature features, the creature itself – embodied extraordinarily by Delphine Chanéac and a panoply of weird CG enhancements – is utterly humanised, while the all-human characters are invested with some genuinely horrifying aberrations, so that we are never quite sure where to direct our sympathies or how to orient our moral judgements.

‘Splice’ is not just a term used in genetic engineering, but also in film editing, and so it is that director/co-writer Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Cypher) revels in splicing together familiar motifs from other films. For a start there is Frankenstein (1931) itself, evoked throughout by the theme of scientific hubris, and more specifically by Elsa’s line “It’s alive!” The hide-and-seek played by Dren’s chicken-like neonatal form in a claustrophobic laboratory is lifted straight from Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986); the weeping, spitting, febrile infant Dren suggests the baby from Eraserhead (1977); Dren’s later incarnation as a deadly temptress recalls Species (1995); while the conjoining of a psychosexual vibe, highly inventive physical horror and chilly corporate cynicism (all in a Canadian setting) is like anything from the early career of David Cronenberg.

Yet if the stitching that holds together all these borrowed parts shows, that only accentuates how much more than the sum of them the resulting hybrid proves to be. For like Dren, Natali’s film comes with a skip in its multi-articulated step, uplifting pinions on its back, and an almighty sting in its tail.

While Splice addresses head-on all the anxieties of our age of genetic manipulation, it also suggests that the bearing and rearing of children will always, even without the complication of interspecies mergings, be a transgressive human experiment, not without risk. Dramatising the drives and desires that unite – and split – us all, the film represents a coupling of the political and the personal that was definitely meant to be. It is one of the richest and most casually strange horror films within recent memory.

In a nutshell: Natali expertly recombines the body horror of a creature feature with the perverse dysfunction of a family tragedy, engendering a freaky new genre hybrid whose monstrosity is (mostly) human.

© Anton Bitel