So Toby Wilkins will be helming The Grudge 3. That’s a bit of a shame. Not because I think he’s the wrong man for the project. Rather, it’s the wrong project for the man. Or, less glibly but more precisely, he is showing real promise as a filmmaker, and it would be a shame to see more talent squandered on a franchise that should definitely be put out to pasture. I base this evaluation on the evidence presented in Splinter, a nifty little creature flick .
The film begins with the collision of seriously two very different couples. Seth and Polly (Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner) are young urbanites on a camping trip. He’s working on a PhD in biology, which becomes important later. Meanwhile, Dennis and Lacey (Shea Whigham and Rachel Kerbs) are on the run (he’s an escaped con, and she’s his twitchy, detoxing girlfriend). The latter two carjack the former, but the situation becomes much more complicated when they stop at an isolated gas station (is there any other kind in horror movies?) and are attacked by the titular creature.
What we have here is a basic as it is tight. The premise is simple, and Wilkins and co-writers Kai Barry and Ian Shorr waste no time it getting straight to the meat of the matter. This is a siege story, in the honorable tradition of The Birds and Night of the Living Dead (not to mention The Killer Shrews) and the siege is in full swing before too many minutes have passed. The characters have just enough definition to make them interesting to be around, and are certainly human enough to warrant our sympathy. Even the rather improbably redemptive revelations late in the day about Dennis are dealt with so briskly that they don’t particularly grate. The whole film runs a snappy 82 minutes, having the common sense (often completely lacking) to know that the premise has been worked out fully and that it is time to wrap things up.
I mentioned that this is a creature feature, and we have a pretty neat one here. It’s inspiration is clearly John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, mixed in with some good, old-fashioned zombie-style contagion issues. The movements are disturbingly rapid and jerky, and there are all sorts of sharp angles where none should be. The attacks are gruesome and at times quite inventive. What is the monster? An alien? A mutation? The film never provides an explanation. There are vague background hints that it might have something to do with oil-drilling in the forest, but those hints are just that: vague and background. There are far too few films that appreciate the simple lesson at work here (one we also see in Tremors, another great siege film). The lesson is this: the simpler the explanation for the monster, the better. No explanation is not a problem. Seriously, do you really care that nuclear radiation, genetic engineering, mercury poisoning or bad copy-editing are responsible for the monster in a given film? Unless there is a particularly telling allegorical point to be made (and that doesn’t happen often), then the answer, more often than not, is no. We come to a monster movie to see a monster. The more time is spent explaining a monster, the less monstrous it becomes (the misbegotten US version of Godzilla being a case in point). This isn’t to say that monsters should be devoid of meaning. And yes, the monster in The Host has a definite origin, but one that is dealt with in about a minute and in strokes that keep the story in the realm of the symbolic. And did the creature in Cloverfield lose its power by being almost completely unexplained? No, it did not.
Great looking stuff here. The colours and contrasts are very strong. Most of the film takes place at night, yet it is never murky. The blacks are deep, the flesh tones are natural, and there is no visible grain or edge enhancement. The aspect ratio preserves the original 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. No complaints here.
The audio is equally strong. The sounds of the night, whether natural or not (and by not natural, I mean in the creepiest sense possible) are given a splendidly immersive 5.1 mix. Surround elements are constant and sinister, plunging viewers into the moment and the scene with the unfortunate characters. Dialogue is always crystal clear. A fine, fine job.
Commentary Track 1: Director Wilkins is joined here by his leads: Whigham, Costanzo and Wagner. As one would expect, the focus of the discussion is on the script, performances and characters. Wilkins’ engaging seriousness of purpose keeps the round table from getting too silly.
Commentary Track 2: This time around, Wilkins teams ups with DP Nelson Cragg and editor David Michael Maurer, and the talk is far more technical, avoiding serious overlap with the first track. All in all, plenty of information to go around.
My principal criticism here involves the featurettes, which cry out for a “Play All” feature, given that they feel like fragments of a single, larger piece. Still, here they are:
Splinter Creature: (4:06) As you might surmise: how the creature was designed.
Creature Concept Art Gallery: (1:28) A slide show that is a suitable companion to the previous extra
The Wizard: (1:11) A very short piece on the FX and pyro expert.
Building the Gas Station: (1:56) Set design is the focus here.
Shooting Digitally: (2:26) Self-explanatory.
Oklahoma Weather: (1:57) In which the stubbornness of the climate is exposed.
How to Make a Splinter Pumpkin: (2:21) This one is actually rather neat, and would be tempting to try out next Halloween. Wagner takes us through the necessary steps.
HDNet: A Look at Splinter: (4:32) A short puff piece.
Splinter doesn’t redefine the genre. Nor is it trying to do so. It is simply setting out to be a sharp, entertaining example of its kind, and in this, it succeeds admirably. Visual FX man Wilkins hereby shows that he knows how to direct a movie. So I hope he gets to work on more promising properties than films with digits in the title.