Biotech horror flick 'Splice' a harrowing, well-written scare-fest

CanWest News Service
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When you feel your fingers spreading over the flesh of your face in a primal attempt to hide what's staring you in the eyeball, you know the movie is working some subconscious kind of magic.

When you grow absolutely giddy from the suspense because you just can't take it anymore, you know the plot has pierced the skin. And when you hear yourself gasp from the shock of seeing an image pushed to the precipice of taboo, you know someone just knocked you off your reality rocking chair with a hip check.

When you feel your fingers spreading over the flesh of your face in a primal attempt to hide what's staring you in the eyeball, you know the movie is working some subconscious kind of magic.

When you grow absolutely giddy from the suspense because you just can't take it anymore, you know the plot has pierced the skin. And when you hear yourself gasp from the shock of seeing an image pushed to the precipice of taboo, you know someone just knocked you off your reality rocking chair with a hip check.

"Splice" delivers all these sensations - and more - making it the standout movie of the season so far, but also an illustration of the power of great writing and some creative execution.

Such ebullient praise for a horror movie may seem critically out of touch, but horror seems to be the last bastion of genuine creativity in Hollywood, because people take it at face value.

They see crazy-eyed monsters instead of the deep, dark heart of humanity, but Canadian director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) doesn't give his audience any room for avoidance. The underlying messages in "Splice" come through in garish Technicolor, as we watch a good-looking pair of geneticists get themselves into a sticky situation.

Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are two star employees at a biotech company where they are developing enzymes to be used in the food and livestock industry. They are creating the enzymes with the aid of two spliced creatures they name Fred and Ginger.

These nods to Hollywood are no accident: Natali and his co-writers, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor, are well-versed in Tinseltown convention, and they're constantly using it as a tool to either exaggerate or pay homage to the landmarks of the genre.

"Frankenstein," after all, was one of the very first feature films ever created, and remains a classic for its esthetic purity, but also because of its timeless message about what happens when you tinker with the natural laws of life and death.

For Clive and Elsa, the "natural" law has become entirely redundant. So adept at switching and fooling the inherent codes double-laced within our skins, the couple has assumed an almost omnipotent stance.

Hubris is just around the corner, but Natali keeps us on the hook until all the pieces are perfectly lined up, so that once the first domino of DNA falls, everything that follows feels completely inevitable.

That's part of what makes this emotional journey so intense: everything feels undeniable.

Whether it's the idea that Clive and Elsa create a mutant baby that affirms their genius as it destroys their relationship, or the creepy profit motive that underlines the whole narrative structure, Natali finds all the right footholds to keep us on a believable journey.

It's a remarkable success, both emotionally and narratively, but also stylistically. "Splice" is not a big-budget movie, but it has heft on screen. Shot in eerie blues and greys, the movie sets up a sterile slab of a science to work on, then splashes on sanguine reds and baby pinks as it presents a new, and potentially threatening, form of life.

The central special effect - the mutant baby - is easily the most compelling piece of computer-generated imagery you will see this year, and because human actors are behind much of the motion and facial expression, we can actually relate to the character in quasi-human terms.

It all makes for a highly confusing and frequently harrowing experience, but because the filmmakers are so confident in the material, all the viewer really has to do is sit back and watch - even if it's from behind the splayed fingers of a terrified mind.

Four stars our of five

Organizations: Technicolor

Geographic location: Hollywood

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