“Splinter” is a movie that relies on three things to succeed: a decent premise, good actors, and creative, resourceful direction. What it doesn’t have, or indeed need is a big budget, high-priced actors, or CGI. “Splinter” is a Creature Feature that could have been made in the ‘80s or ‘90s, and indeed, a guy like Sam Raimi back in his pre-“Spider-Man” days might have cast his buddy Bruce Campbell in the Dennis Farell role and filled out the crew with family and friends eager to “get together and make a horror movie or die trying”. Of course, I imagine the real impetus for “Splinter” might have been more solid, or at least more commercially minded, but for the sake of this review, let’s just go with what I had since it’s so much cooler.
“Splinter” is a movie about spike-ish parasites that can infect and take over its victim. The result of infection is death to the victims, who are then replaced by grotesque, lifeless versions of their former selves control by the spikes. They are, in a word, ugly sonsofbitches. And deadly, too. These poor souls are always moving, flopping about, and on the look-out for the nearest warm body to feed on. And did I mention they are nearly impossible to kill? The film doesn’t go out of its way to tell us where the parasite originates, but a brief panning shot to a sign would seem to indicate that the splinters are the product of “experimental” drilling in the area. Once again, mankind’s need for black gold has threatened to doom us. Stupid mankind. Why can’t we just get a hovercraft or our own personal jetpack and be done with it? All this reliance on oil will be our undoing one of these days. And if not, eh, it’s still annoying to hear about it in every other movie.
The film stars Jill Wagner and Paulo Costanzo as Polly and Seth, a young married couple from the city, who has journeyed into the boondocks for a little honeymoon camping. Polly and Seth are such city folk that although married, they haven’t taken each other’s last names. That’s just how progressive they are. Seth is a biology major and will one day become a scientist. Or doctor. I forgot which. We really don’t know what Polly does for a living, but from her clothes and ability to put together a tent, we assume she’s the more outdoorsy of the couple. That, and because Seth looks like your typical city geek with too much brains and not enough brawn. In fact, Seth is such a stereotypical nerd, he doesn’t even know how to fix a flat tire and, get this, can’t drive a stick. Oh man, Seth, you suck! One wonders how such a geek landed an adventurous hottie like Polly. Oh, movie logic, what can’t you do?
Needless to say, Seth and Polly’s anniversary getaway takes a detour when they stop to help out another couple, Lacey (Rachel Kerbs) and Dennis (Shea Whigham). The city folk are a little apprehensive about stopping for the other couple, especially since Lacey practically has the words “Warning: White Trailer Trash!” stamped on her forehead, and Dennis, well, Dennis is packing a six-shooter and looks like he’s ready to whup someone’s ass. Or actually, Dennis always looks that way. As it turns out, Polly and Seth’s doubts were right on, as Dennis is a wanted criminal and with Lacey, was hightailing it to Mexico to escape a police manhunt. Predictably, Polly and Seth become hostages to the fugitive couple, but it’s a stop at a local roadside gas station in the middle of nowhere that proves deadly. As it turns out, the gas station attendant is dead and has been infected by the parasitic spikes. Can you say, “No thanks, I’ll pump my own gas”?
“Splinter’s” premise is your basic Haunted House storyline, with a group of disparate characters trapped in a solitary location without help from the outside world. They must rely on each other by overcoming their own prejudices in order to survive the night. There isn’t a whole lot about the movie that is complex or deep, but maybe that’s why I had such a blast with it – it’s not trying too hard, and I find that kinda nice in my Creature Features. In “Splinter’s” case, the group becomes three people – Dennis and lovebirds Polly and Seth – real fast, as Lacey quickly becomes conscripted into the spike army. Eventually, Seth and Polly come to embrace Dennis as a fellow survivor and vice versa, and at various points the more aggressive Polly and Dennis seem to have more in common than the passive, intellectual Seth. Of course, at the end of the day while brawn is not unappreciated in situations such as these, it’s always brains that win the war. You just remember that, nerds. You hold the power to survival and saving your hot outdoorsy girlfriend in your hands, no matter what anyone says!
If you’ve never heard of the three leads in “Splinter”, don’t be too hard on yourself. While films like these are usually reserved for newcomers willing to get dirty in order to get a start in the business, our three leads actually have quite extensive credits at IMDB.com, including major Hollywood productions. I’m most familiar with Jill Wagner, who was one of the stars of Spike TV’s short-lived Blade: The TV Series, a role that has allowed her to guest-star in a number of genre shows, including Bones and Stargate: Atlantis. And oh yeah, Jill Wagner is also the very attractive woman in all those Mercury car commercials. You know, the ones that, for some reason, made you pay attention to a car commercial? All three actors are more than game and hold up their end; although I thought giving the gun-toting Dennis a sympathetic backstory was a tad unnecessary. Yes, I get it, ol Dennis hasn’t exactly had the easiest of life, but this is one of those cases where knowing too much about a character ends up ruining him. Can’t a badass just be a badass anymore?
“Splinter” is directed by Toby Wilkins, who is no stranger to creepy horror movies. After toiling away on an installment of Sam Raimi’s American version of “The Grudge” franchise, Wilkins was rewarded with the upcoming “Grudge 3” sequel. The director no doubt knew what he had (solid actors, a solid premise), and what he didn’t (a big budget, money for CGI), and made the most of the resources at hand. The smart thing the production did was establishing very early on the puppet-like nature of the parasite’s infection. As a result, when the parasite-infected humans begin their attack, it doesn’t look too obviously like, well, special effects guys jerking on prosthetics with strings just off screen. Much of the film’s strength lies in the performances and the sudden shock of the creatures bursting forth onscreen to attack, before retreating to lurk in the darkness.
If you’re in the mood for some Old School Creature Feature fun, then “Splinter” should be at the very top of your list. Genre aficionados will have more than enough to chew on, from the abundant gore to the practical effects that should make you long for the old days, before every little thing in movies were computer generated. And where else will you find an impromptu surgery sequence using the at once gruesome and hilarious combination of a box cutter and a slab of cinder block? You ain’t gonna find that little gem in “National Treasure 20”, that’s for damn sure. And come on, what movie couldn’t use impromptu surgery using box cutters and cinder blocks? That’s just good cinema, folks.
Toby Wilkins (director) / Kai Barry, Ian Shorr, Toby Wilkins (screenplay)
CAST: Shea Whigham … Dennis Farell
Paulo Costanzo … Seth Belzer
Jill Wagner … Polly Watt
Charles Baker … Blake Sherman Jr.
Rachel Kerbs … Lacey Belisle
Laurel Whitsett … Sheriff Terri Frankel