Cinema is filled with mad professors and hubristic doctors meddling with nature’s natural course, and while James Whale’s classic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is anything but a B-movie, it undoubtedly set the template for the decades of rampaging monsters of science that followed.
From the oddly beautiful cyborg created by the crazed scientist/master of the occult Rotwang in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, to the beast men of 1996’s The Island Of Doctor Moreau and beyond, generations of mad doctors have been playing God for our viewing pleasure.
David Cronenberg was undoubtedly one of the finest directors of ‘science out of control’ movies, and his early work was filled with unnerving creatures and experiments gone terribly wrong. See the disease-spreading parasites of Shivers (1975), the blood-sucking, disease-spreading armpit monster in Rabid (1979), the mind-blowing psychics of Scanners (1981) and the tragic results of matter transportation in The Fly (1986).
After the surreal exploration of videogames and simulated reality in eXistenZ, however, Cronenberg has steadily moved into more grounded (but no less gory) territory, and his interest in mad scientists appears to have waned.
Which brings me onto Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, a film that takes up the mantle of early Cronenberg with icky relish. The director of such low-budget gems as Cube and Cypher, aka Brainstorm, (the latter, in particular, is criminally underrated), Natali got a much deserved boost when Guillermo del Toro signed on as Splice‘s producer. Natali’s script, which had apparently been sitting in a drawer since the late-90s, finally made it to the screen.
Unusually, Splice gives us not one mad scientist, but two, genetic engineers Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), whose relationship provides the film with much of its tension and black comedy, as well as some quite interesting comments about childbirth and parenthood.
Like most mad scientists, their intentions are pure, at least initially. Working for a pharmaceutical company called NERD (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development) they devise a way of crossing human and animal DNA to create a hybrid with properties with potentially huge benefits for medical science. Understandably, NERD refuses to allow the experiment to go ahead on ethical grounds but, needless to say, Clive and Elsa get on with the splicing regardless.
The result is, unsurprisingly, an abomination. Hatching from a gooey surrogate womb, the creature, christened Dren, is a loathsome, aggressive little beast, with a cloven head and pallid, waxen skin.
Gradually, however, Dren mutates, like the ugly duckling, into an altogether different creature that is at once alluring and grotesque, with ethereal wings and a deadly, stinging tail.
It’s at this stage that things become rather more complicated. Once her doting parents, Clive and Elsa’s relationship becomes increasingly fractious, and they both, in their individual ways, subject Dren to terrible physical and psychological cruelty.
Brody and Polley are great as the scientist/parents whose dynamic with their creation constantly changes, and their acting certainly carries Splice through its more hackneyed moments. But the film really belongs to French actress Delphine Chanéac. Her performance as the fully grown Dren is excellent, lending the creature a touching, vulnerable quality that acts as a counterpoint to her deadly hidden strength.
For all her weird appendages and oddly shaped legs, Dren is still a typical youth trapped in a monster’s body, with all the frustrations and wilful behaviour that comes with it. Her battle of wits with Elsa, which soon spirals out of control in bloody fashion, is often difficult to watch.
A B-movie to the core, Splice is filled with all the genre trappings you’d expect, from its unpleasant experiments gone wrong, to its grizzly, slightly ridiculous climax, whose events are vaguely reminiscent of Roger Corman’s loopy exploitation flick Humanoids From The Deep.
For some, Splice‘s conclusion will seem like a step too far into the murky waters of schlock, with its abrupt change of pace and weird sex, and it’s a pity that Natali chose such a path, having masterfully built up a sense of quiet tension elsewhere.
Despite its rather botched last act, Splice is nevertheless one of the most watchable films of its type in a long time, and there hasn’t been a creature quite as sympathetic or tragic as Dren since Boris Karloff’s turn as Frankenstein’s monster almost 80 years ago. By turns beautiful and savage, her suffering at the hands of her cruel parents is, in the film’s better moments, heart-wrenching to watch.
As is so often the case in sci-fi, the humans are Splice‘s cruellest monsters.
Splice is out now on DVD and Blu-ray available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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