Saturday, August 28, 2010

Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009)

Sugar and spice, and everything nice

Vincenzo Natali's latest film Splice (2009) is your basic horror fable updated to incorporate genetic engineering into its plot, and while not exactly the freshest or most gruesome take on the genre (David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986), anyone?) it does go on to become its own sequel--a comic and not a little macabre tale about what it it takes to raise your own quickly mutating offspring.

The soon-to-be parents are a pair of hotshot geneticists named Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polly), who produce tailor-made DNA for a large biotech company. They have had some initial success; their first creations are dubbed Fred and Ginger, a brother-and-sister tandem that resemble a pair of affectionate puppy-dogs, if the puppies had put on maggot costumes (later Fred and Ginger have a confrontation that gives new meaning to the term 'splatter genre'). Eventually Clive and Elsa hope to develop innovative genetic techniques that will treat various deformities, regenerate seriously damaged major organs, possibly extend the length and improve the quality of human life as a whole. That's not the company's true goals, however; what they are really interested in is the 'ka-ching!' of the cash register every time a gene is ready for the biotech market.

Clive and Elsa; any horror fan knows these names, and like James Whale's classic pair of films, the movie moves on quickly from the initial creation scene--a burlap bag floating in the hi-tech equivalent of amniotic fluid--to its consequences: a little creature that looks faintly like a kangaroo rat, faintly like the dividing segments of a developing zygote. The little zygote--sorry, child--is named Dren (the name of their company NERD spelled backwards); the couple (did I mention they were childless?) adopt it without the company's knowledge and raise it as their own--Elsa in particular loving it as only a mother can. Clive feels different; he'd drown the damned thing if he could (and a bit of irony results when he attempts just that) and he shudders every time he has to look at it, touch it, wipe away its seeping bodily fluids.

But as any parent knows, the trials of childhood--the feedings, the messes, the tantrums, the frighteningly sudden, frighteningly unexplainable fevers--are nothing compared to the emotional, psychological and social complexities of puberty. Dren develops into a nubile young beauty (Delphine Chaneac) with the lower extremities of a hairless goat (talk about being disgusting and a turn-on simultaneously). Suddenly--and here's where matters get really interesting--the dynamics of the little group shift: Elsa starts acting like a strident and restrictive mother, forbidding Dren from keeping pets or leaving the isolated barn she lives in; suddenly Clive finds himself growing interested in the precocious little thing, indulging her, often taking up her side against Elsa.

It's not just turnaround for the sake of turnaround; what makes the film truly disturbing is that the changes in these people actually make sociological sense. It's a parody of a middle-aged family trying to deal with an emerging adolescent consciousness over which they have little understanding, much less control (it doesn't help matters that they barely understand--and have control--over their own urges and desires). And her body still keeps changing, almost every day...

You could see the various influences of various horror films: a dollop of David Lynch's Eraserhead, a spoonful of Ridley Scott's Alien, a chunk of the aforementioned Cronenberg (not just The Fly with its genetically evolving creature, but The Brood's horrific fleshy reproductive sacks, and perhaps the poisoned stinger from Rabid as well)--plus the great-grandmother of them all, James Whale's adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel, and the even greater, even more relevant sequel (basically dealing with the consequences of a child's cruel abuse, and the offspring's strangely moving ability to rise above the abuse).

Natali's interesting, not quite great; at least, not yet. His Cube (1997) was that marvelous rarity, a horror-thriller whose ingenious plot turned on basic mathematical concepts (permutations, mainly). This, his sophomore effort, isn't quite as original (though that earlier film did seem to take a page or two from Kafka), the same time it shows considerably more ambition in terms of characterization, emotional tone, overall storytelling. He doesn't quite achieve the "what the f...?!" repulsiveness of the fetus in Lynch's early masterpiece, nor does he achieve the unflinching gaze of Cronenberg, coolly staring down his horrific creations as they lurched and dribbled and oozed across the giant screen. But Natali does understand eroticism in horror, he does have a deft way with humor, and he does introduce something fairly new to the language of horror cinema: the endlessly evolving girl-child whose development parallels (but is not limited to) a youth's development while undergoing puberty. Unwholesome fun.

First published in Businessworld, 8.19.20

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