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Movie/DVD Review: Splinter

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Over the years, the Horror genre has been dismissed by film snobs as nothing more than an indulgence in excessive, shallow pleasures by violence and gore obsessed individuals who feed on screams, despair and bloodshed. Admittedly, so much of it is often derivative, cheap and uninspired. However, innovation and care can still occasionally be found within the dark recesses of this mostly misunderstood form of storytelling. Case in point, Splinter.

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WARNING: Contains Minor Spoilers!

After a grisly teaser involving a bored gas station attendant, Splinter follows two couples (separately, at first) traveling through the back roads of the sprawling, Oklahoma woodlands. The first couple are Seth and Polly, on a camping trip to celebrate their anniversary. Polly, played by Jill Wagner (Bones, Stargate: Atlantis, Blade: The Series, Wipeout) wants to enjoy an intimate, outdoor evening under the stars. Seth, played by Paulo Costanzo (Royal Pains, Joey, Josie and The Pussycats, Road Trip) would much rather abandon the bugs, heat and tent-building for a motel room.

The second couple are Dennis and Lacey, broken down on the side of the road and forced to walk to the next town. Dennis, played by Shea Whigham (Fast & Furious, ER, Wristcutters: A Love Story, All the Real Girls) is running from his criminal nature while trying to redeem himself with someone he’s wronged. Lacey, played by newcomer Rachel Kerbs is a struggling drug addict trying to follow Dennis to the promise of a better, cleaner life. Desperate to keep his word to Lacey, Dennis pulls a gun on Polly and Seth after they pull over to help the stranded couple.

While driving at gunpoint, Polly hits something in the road, causing a blowout and forcing them to stop. Mentally troubled and detoxing, Lacey drags Seth into the darkness to help what she thinks is her deceased puppy, Ginger. What the two find is much more unsettling. Meanwhile, Polly and Dennis are changing the tire. Dennis accidentally pricks his finger on an odd-looking splinter embedded in the rubber, but chalks it up to simple carelessness at the time.

Eventually, the group pulls into a seemingly abandoned gas station. Lacey tries to sneak away to the restroom for a fix, but instead runs into what used to be the register jockey from the opening of the film. His body is mangled and twisted beyond the laws of human anatomy and architecture, but he’s still alive and begging to be killed. What ever’s doing this to him is still, hungry!

This is where the film gets really fun. Like previous films of the “besieged” sub-genre (Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, From Dusk Till Dawn), Splinter makes excellent use of its minimalist, isolated location. In this case, a rundown gas station and convenience store. The writer and director Toby Wilkins (The Grudge 3, Devil’s Trade) mainly worked in visual effects before now on such films as Rings, After the Sunset, Bulletproof Monk and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. He uses these skills to create a thick atmosphere of dread, spine-tingling tension and a fresh, disturbing new monster the likes of which have never been seen before.

All of these elements are finely woven to support a solid script full of rich, diverse characters forced to work together against such a grotesque and fascinating threat. Paulo Costanzo does a nice job of representing the audience, playing cautious and frightened with a pulling thread of curiosity and observation. For the small amount of screen time she has, Rachel Kerbs gives a memorable performance as someone dealing with both a mental and physical instability. Shea Whigham, while mostly superb in his intense and nuanced delivery, is marred only by his intrusive, redneck accent. It’s a bit much, making him hard to understand. The standout here is Jill Wagner. Tough, smart and confident, she makes for a solid heroine.

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Shot using High-Definition cameras with film-quality function, Splinter looks superb. The blood is thick and dark. Flesh tones are muted, but never sickly looking, which can be a problem under all those fluorescent lights. Taking place mostly at night, the film is consistent with deep, contrasting blacks without any noise or grain during low light scenes. While most of the night photography is tamed in unobtrusive, moody desaturation, the early daytime scenes more than make up for it. The forestation is vibrant and earthy, reminiscent of the greenery found in episodes of Lost. The warmer tones are bright, but not blinding as can often be the case with most other hot, sun-baked affairs (I’m looking at you, Steven Soderbergh and Michael Bay).

The 5.1 sound mix is rather exquisite. Rattling splinters, trickling blood and merging body parts (don’t ask) provide an almost musical experience for the ears. The only minor oddity comes in the form of gunfire. It’s not that they sound bad, just different. Unnatural. Anytime someone shoots something, it sounds too muffled, like the weapon of choice is being discharged underwater or buried into a thick, heavy pillow. Your mileage may vary. All dialogue, save for Shea’s occasional, mumbling Southern drawl can be heard just fine. No subtitles should be necessary.

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The special features on this single disc release are thick and hearty. There are not one, but two commentaries. The first, consisting of Wilkins and his three principle actors (Shea, Jill and Paulo), is informative without being boring. The participants are energetic and warm as they fondly remember their experiences while making the film. The second commentary comes from Wilkins along with director of photography, Nelson Cragg (CSI, Boogeyman 2, 30 Days of Night: Blood Trails) and editor, David Michael Maurer (Big Brother, The Apprentice, Paradise Hotel). This one goes deeper into the specifics of the production, from the cameras that were used to the gas station set and location. Worth a listen for aspiring filmmakers.

In addition, we get a wealth of featurettes, the longest and more general one courtesy of HDnet. Broken up into shorts (too short. Each one runs for just a couple minutes), the remaining accessible featurettes deal with each individual aspect of the production. There are interviews aplenty dealing with pyrotechnics, set building, digital film making, creature design and even the unpredictable weather conditions of the Oklahoma locations. There’s also a slide show gallery of creature concept art and my personal favorite, a fun arts & crafts video where Jill Wagner teaches fans how to make their own “Splinter Pumpkin”. I think I’d like to try it next Halloween. The only thing missing is a spotlight on the film’s composer, Elia Cmiral (Pulse, Wrong Turn, They, Ronin). His score here is mostly percussion-based, but also shows flourishes of John Carpenter’s early work.

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While the box art does do a serviceable job of giving you an idea of what kind of movie this is (two tense-looking people behind a pair of glass doors, barricaded in from some outside, unseen danger), I much prefer the simpler, more ominous theatrical poster. Grimy, blackened fingers reaching over a metal sill, with sharp, deadly splinters protruding every which way from the knuckles, along with a blood splattered title.

The interactive menu design is dark, but clean and easy to navigate. The lone gas station with flickering, fluorescent lights, surrounded by black emptiness. Each menu selection gets its own page, which in turn uses the vibrating splinter theme and the shallow depth of field to emulate the look and feel of the picture. Against all this darkness, the text is big, bold and white. Very nicely done.

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**** out of 4.

Splinter is an eerie, bloody slice of old-school horror fun. It has characters with progressive growth, inventive, practical effects (though there are is some slight, excellent digital enhancement in places) and grounded performances from all involved. Toby Wilkins is a director who clearly has an appreciation for the genre. He’s to be commended for showing us something new, which is nearly impossible and rare in this day and age of modern horror. This would make a great, midnight party movie to watch with friends who like their thrills and chills in a tight, satisfying package. Splinter is currently available to “Watch Instantly” for Netflix members, but I recommend seeking out the DVD for the full experience.

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