Previously, I posted about how highly I anticipated Splice, a sci-fi/horror film written and directed by Vincenzo Natali and starring Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody. A friend tempered my high expectations by telling me that some reviewers panned the film, but I went to see it last night anyway with hopes that the film would prove strong. I am happy to report that Splice may be this summer’s Drag Me to Hell, in terms of high quality, provocative, mainstream horror. You simply must see it.
For those who missed my previous post, Splice follows a couple of scientists, Clive and Elsa (Brody and Polley, respectively) tasked with creating animal hybrids in order to extract proteins for gene therapy. They succeed in developing strange, penile like creatures for this purpose, calling the pair Fred and Ginger. Riding the high of their success, Clive and Elsa propose an even more radical experiment involving the incorporation of human DNA, much to the dismay of the executives of their company. Despite orders to refrain from using human DNA, Elsa and Clive move forward with the project in secret with plans to abort the egg once it proves viable. The egg, however, grows more rapidly than expected. In an intense scene, Clive and Elsa extract the creature from it’s fetal tank. The animal ages rapidly starting out looking like a fleshy tube with a bulbous appendage at one end and becoming more human-like as time passes.
With wide set eyes, chicken-like legs, and a tail with a stinger, the creature (which Elsa names “Dren”) looks uncannily human, yet behaves with the unpredictability of an animal. As Dren grows, she becomes more difficult to hide from other workers in the lab and Clive and Elsa decide to move her to a secluded farm house where they keep her locked in a barn. Meanwhile, the “Fred and Ginger” project takes a disastrous turn when Ginger changes sex and the two kill each other in front of the company’s shareholders. The couple must develop the proteins demanded by the company using DNA samples. Elsa extracts DNA from Dren, successfully reproducing the protein demanded by the company.
But work seems the least of their worries. Rather, the film’s final third revolves around tensions amongst Dren, Clive, and Elsa. Dren rebels against the mother figure Elsa while Clive and Dren become closer. The emotions between Clive and Dren quickly become sexual, and Dren successfully seduces him. Elsa walks in on a freaky intra-species sex scene, one of the film’s more shocking moments. Soon thereafter, Dren appears to grow sick and die; however, Dren rises from her fresh grave, transformed into a male. After killing Clive’s brother and one of the executives sent to investigate, Dren attacks Elsa and rapes her. Clive impales Dren, but Dren kills Clive with his regrown stinger. Elsa, however, finishes the job by smashing Dren’s head with a rock.
Months later, Elsa makes a deal with the company to enter phase 2 of the Dren project. The now clearly pregnant Elsa agrees to carry her baby to term despite the personal risks and ethical implications. The film ends without reassurances, fading to black with the image of a female executive embracing Elsa.
This last image of an older woman holding a younger woman draws attention to the mother/daughter dynamics central to the film. From the time of Dren’s birth, Elsa relates to her like a mother to a child, protecting Dren from danger and, as she grows, teaching her new skills and praising her for her accomplishments. Along with skills, Elsa passes along lessons of femininity, giving Dren a Barbie-like doll, adorning her in dresses, and as she matures, teaching her how to use make-up. These lessons in femininity contrast Elsa’s own accounts of her relationship with her deceased mother. Elsa tells Dren that she hid her doll from sight because her mother would not allow her to play with dolls; Elsa also explains that make-up was forbidden because, her mother said, it “debased women.” Elsa’s mothering of Dren, then, contrasts her mother’s approach.
I interpreted these generational differences in terms of second-wave feminism and third-wave feminism. In other words, Elsa seems to be lashing back at her mother’s strict definitions of female empowerment by embracing a more traditional notion of femininity. This clash reminded me of a terrific article by Kathleen Karlyn about the ways in which the Scream series grapples with mother/daughter relationships in very similar terms. Elsa uses Dren to rework issues unresolved between herself and her mother, which becomes particularly interesting as Dren matures into a sexual being. In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, Dren nearly kills Elsa after being scolded for killing a cat; Elsa then proceeds to knock Dren out and restrain her, removing her clothing before cutting off her stinger. Clive later states that he believes that Elsa channeled her motherly impulses into Dren because as a scientist, she believed she could have greater control in an experimental setting–the scene confirms this suspicion, with Elsa referring to Dren as a subject and specimen, reinforcing an illusion of scientific objectivity. In short, Elsa struggles with memories of her own controlling, abusive mother, channeling similar impulses into her relationship with Dren with disturbing effects.
Dren’s relationship with Clive proves just as interesting. Clive struggles with the moral and ethical implications of the project from the very beginning, regularly insisting on terminating Dren but ultimately relenting at Elsa’s behest. Yet, Clive ultimately reciprocates Dren’s advances, in part because she physically resembles Elsa (a fact that leads Clive to conclude that Elsa contributed her own DNA for the project). Thus, Clive (like Elsa) conflates his desires for Elsa toward Dren. Splice, then, portrays parent/child relationships as complicated by transference.
Ultimately, Splice depicts a heterosexual couple producing a monstrous (but sympathetic) being, resulting in the kind of dysfunctional family unit described by Freud a century ago–we even get a primal scene in the film. I expect that such an outcome would please the late Robin Wood despite Dren’s queerness (see my review of Orphan for more about Wood).
Of course, Splice does exhibit flaws, particularly in terms of dialog and mise-en-scene. Elsa’s repeating of the phrase “What’s the worst that could happen?” failed to illicit the laughs intended. The whole self-proclaimed nerdiness of the characters seems contrived, especially since Elsa and Clive initially dress like hackers in a late-nineties computer thriller. I expect that some folks (the true nerds) will scoff at the liberties taken with science, but in a fantasy film, I tend to let this slide.
The fact of the matter: Splice held my attention from start to finish, unnerving me and leaving me with much to ponder. I can’t make that claim about most of the films I have seen this past year. Can you?