★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a zombie picture that has nothing to do with a virus. Written by Ian Shorr and Kai Barry, the imaginative and suspenseful “Splinter” takes on a straightforward, no subplot approach of focusing on four characters trying to survive a night of horrors—first on the road and then inside a gas station. Sure, the frights are familiar and there are more than a few instances in which the jolts can be anticipated down to the split-second, but there is no denying that the execution gets the job done. It is creepy, efficient, and riotously watchable. As a genre piece, it works.
Polly (Jill Wagner) and Seth (Paulo Costanzo), a couple celebrating their anniversary, are stopped by a wanted man (Shea Whigham) and his drug addicted girlfriend (Rachel Kerbs), on the run to Mexico, while on their way to a motel. But this is no ordinary hostage situation. The four must team up quickly to try to outsmart and outlive an organism that takes over corpses and “eats” or metabolizes nutrients. These four personalities are indeed archetypes (the brain, the tough chick, the criminal, the drug addict), but the performances are enthusiastic enough and the impossible situation is terrifying enough for us to be able to overlook the more recognizable aspects of the screenplay.
The makeup and creature effects are inspired. In a way, the organism in question does not have a defined form. So the specialists are forced to be creative. We see ominous-looking spikes protruding from its hosts, but this is only a defense mechanism. When touched, for instance, these spikes can easily embed themselves on the skin and taking over the host begins. Although there is a trope involving one of the survivors having to keep secret that he or she has been infected, I didn’t mind so much because the overall situation’s tension keeps increasing. I enjoyed that there is a discovery to be made every fifteen minutes or so. Clearly, the material does not lack confidence.
The organism is capable of putting together dead bodies from various sources so the appearance of the enemy likens that of Frankenstein’s monster. It is strong, it moves quickly, and the camera is tickled to show us how ugly it looks when it lunges for an attack. It is unclear whether it feels pain or suffering. I’m inclined to believe it does not. To increase the ante, the organism can also live in an excised body part and control it to move. There is a funny and terrifying bit with a hand in an enclosed space. Good stuff.
“Splinter” is directed by Toby Wilkins and it functions on pure forward momentum. Coupled with a screenplay that assumes viewers have seen a number of zombie films, there are a number of instances here where expectations are subverted and played for uncomfortable laughs. Then just around the corner the real horror awaits.