The golden age of horror: Splinter (2008)

Grandy: Monster Movies have a rich history, being one of the major sub-genres of horror movies. It was monster movies that best captured my attention as a kid, and I’m glad we made sure to include at least one in the list that didn’t involve vampires or zombies (both subjects worth covering and covered, with excellent examples). Monster movies very frequently veer off into the weird, and they pluck at our imaginations in their own interesting ways (the evolution of this sort of thing would be Pacific Rim: a movie about giant monsters, giant robots, pro wrestling, and dragon slaying all rolled into one). From Godzilla to the xenomorph in Alien to the living nightmare that was John Carpenter’s version of The Thing, monster movies have embraced all shapes and sizes in their quest to scare and terrify us over the years, shapes and sizes great and small.

After the Jump, two guys, a girl, and a gas station in the middle of nowhere

Grandy: There are a number of tropes that monster movies have really leaned on over the years. One of the most famous would be the “first contact” where the creature (typically never shown or partially glimpsed) kills some hapless person who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is a piece of formula but one that has produced iconic scenes (Jaws, to name one example). While it’s true that the monster is typically left off screen in this scene to build tension, a lot of monster movies have gone to great lengths to keep the monster off screen as much as possible, for the simple reason that special effects work is difficult and costly. This is to say nothing of the fact that designing something that is scary in motion is no easy task. Splinter follows a lot of genre conventions but it does so on its own terms.

Chris: Splinter was directed by British expatriate Toby Wilkins who made his bones as a visual effects supervisor on a variety of projects. That job is essentially being the guy who figures out how to do effects within the constraints of a movie’s budget. He also picked up a decent amount of editing and directing work on short films and interstitial bits for television. Splinter’s kinetic handheld camera shooting style, dynamic editing and special effects on a budget in this creature feature show that he learned his craft well. The movie feels like Wilkins is teaching a clinic on how to do low-budget horror the right way.

Grandy: Agreed. It’s a fast paced movie (a well shot one) but it features lulls that it also uses to good effect. Wilkins never lets the budget get in the way of anything, and knows how to put his resources to good use.

Chris: We’ve covered some of the same ground as Splinter before in horror films. Genre fans will recognize the obvious inspiration of The Thing, not only in the parasitic nature of the creature, but also in the way the movie traps characters in a safe zone that may not be so safe after all. Although Splinter borrows, it makes the smart choice to use the supremely familiar setting of a gas station convenience store as its centerpiece. We feel immediately at home here. We know how things work here and what the rules are.

Grandy: One thing creature features usually do have is a great big heaping pile of science. Not, you know, real science (pro tip: things becoming giant things because radiation is not how radiation works). But “realish science”. It’s not surprising; as a people we like to tell certain stories over and over and some of them work really well when they’re personified by some horrific thing that’s beyond our control. Godzilla is the best example of this, but it’s an idea that horror and science fiction movies have been retelling for ages. Science is in fact often the cause of, but also solution to, whatever problem is at hand. Splinter, however, is not interested in invoking science in service of telling that sort of tale. And Wilkins isn’t interested in trying to invent a creature we’ll probably find stupid, either. The simplicity of the creature is a huge strength. The spiky outgrowths we see early on are weird and ominous. Looking at bodies covered in spikey growths is creepy. It’s even more creepy when those bodies start getting up, and this goes back to laying down rules. We know what a body is supposed to look like in motion. The contortions and jerky movements help sell the alien-ness of the organism.

Chris: I agree that the very basic and thankfully not-dwelled-upon “science” here does give us a very cool and interesting creature. I love the way the movie plays with this, as we’re given ample evidence that this awful monster straight from nature doesn’t have the ability to care about it’s host/victims. Disembodied hands wriggle and twist on the floor, sometimes attacking the group with almost comedic fury. An arm struggles to reach through the cash window section of the station, and we see the flesh gruesomely torn without care as it works its way through. I love the nature of this beast, pun absolutely intended.

Grandy: Our two couples couldn’t be more different, and that’s right down to the person who seems to be calling the shots in the couple. Shea Whigham’s Dennis is the sort of savvy but not formally educated criminal you’ve seen in a thousand movies, but Wigham gives the character a ton of depth. He’s much more than he appears at a glance, though there is one aspect of him that we sort of expect from watching many such characters over the years: he loathes Paul Constanzo’s Seth. I wouldn’t say that Jill Wagner’s Polly wears the pants in her and Seth’s relationship (it’s not a phrase I am wild about), but she’s intelligent and strong willed and Seth is perfectly ok with that and taking a back seat to her at times. But it’s something that makes Seth a target for Dennis, and Dennis gravitates towards what he sees as weakness in Seth (“Tell me you can pump gas?” is a terrifically delivered line).


Chris: Pity poor Paulo Costanzo here. He’s the dude stuck with delivering most of the sciencey gibberish, in what passes for the most exposition we get in the film. Even with his nerdy glasses, a lot of his botanical mumbo jumbo comes off as forced into the script. At one point, Dennis (who is an escaped con con, we’ve learned) gives an amazingly heartfelt soliloquy about what he did that made him so locally notorious–and what he plans to do about it. It’s a very soulful moment, one where the couple should have an epiphany on why they’ve decided to trust the guy who carjacked them earlier in the evening. Instead, Seth, played by Costanzo, just says “Temperature!” and launches into some plot-required biology nonsense, as if that were the perfect follow on from hearing about shooting a man in cold blood.

Thankfully, the dialogue and performances of the other two main actors here is very good. Jill Wagner may be a television actress, but she’s a good television actress and inhabits her character with a believable verve and assertiveness. Stronger still is Shea Whigham as Dennis. It’s a coup for this film having enlisted Whigham’s star-quality talent at this still fairly early stage of his career. As the man with the gun, he’s often the center of things in Splinter, and plays the convict with as a many-faceted and realistic individual. Even when he and Lacey have just commandeered the truck, we sense that there’s an essential reasonableness and soundness to Whigham’s character. A harder criminal would just shoot Seth and Polly right there. We sense that Dennis could do it, but doesn’t want or need to. He’s got other things on his mind.

Grandy: I think Dennis is a very deliberate sort of person. So he’s not going to shoot someone unless he’s threatened himself or his instincts tell him to do so. He’s not wasteful. I completely agree that Whigham’s performance drives the movie and you can see the multi-faceted actor he’s going to become at work here. I like Wagner’s performance, and I think Constanzo is good enough as the third wheel. It’s interesting that the group’s dynamic is turned on it’s head more than once inside the gas station. Each of the three takes turn leading in a believable fashion. You can sense that deep down somewhere Dennis respects Polly and he will even gain a measure of respect for Seth before it’s all said and done (“what are you thinking?” he asks at one point when Seth has something of a lightbulb moment).

Chris: Great points, so I’ll leave Paulo alone. I do feel we ought to talk more about Wilkins’ direction. He makes so many smart choices, it’s hard to know where to begin praising him. His quick cut editing when the creature comes around prevents us from ever getting a close enough look to realize that it’s a dude in a blood and entrails ghillie suit; in fact, during an extended sequence with the creature inside the store, the monster makes sure he knocks down some light fixtures so they flicker irregularly and sway back and forth. It’s the kind of clever trick–totally organic to the film and story–that a veteran effects supervisor would come up with.

Wilkins is more than just that, however. There’s a tremendous sequence of escalating tension when the group first arrives at the gas station. Lacey’s out back trying to get into the women’s room. Seth is at the gas pumps, filling up. Dennis and Polly are inside the store. Using his handheld camera shots with editing that cuts between all three of these spaces as the music quietly builds felt almost like the Mexican standoff at the climax of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The camera moves from space to space, and we know that we’re about to get a monster scare. Even within each space, it focuses on details–the bugs in the lights of the restroom; the phone on the counter of the store; the empty lawn chair out by the pumps. It’s really wonderful stuff and helps make what might have otherwise been a fairly tame creature reveal in the restroom something far more exciting than it has any right to be.

Grandy: I said it was an economic film earlier and I think this sequence helps show that off. Splinter gets by with only 4 deaths to its credit (counting the marmot), each one more gruesome than the one before. We get just enough effects work to sell everything and then Wilkins moves on, escalating the stakes and letting the characters interact (and change hats, as it were) during the lulls in the action. I think it’s a definitive post-Blair Witch horror movie. Small budget, well plotted and filmed, sincere, and driven by charismatic leads.

(Splinter is available to rent or own via the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)