F/x whiz Toby Wilkins’ “Splinter” is a spare, effective and genuinely frightening retro-nightmare that will have teenage gore girls trooping to the movies like lurching swarms of George Romero’s living dead. The socio-sexual-psychological attraction of “Splinter” — which just won a rash of awards at Screamfest in Los Angeles — will constitute as much of the film’s draw as Quantum Creation’s human sea urchins or the generous portions of blood served up by Wilkins and his makeup peeps. It’s a chick flick with hemoglobin — and a Halloween opening wasn’t a bad idea, either.
Clearly out to evoke ’70s horror, “Splinter” kicks off with a twist on the twisted familiar: Seth (Paulo Costanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner) are going camping — bad idea — but they can’t get the tent up. But hold on: It’s when they get back into the presumed safety of their SUV (there’s a subliminal green message in there somewhere) that they’re abducted by the malignant Dennis (Shea Whigham) and his crystal meth-addled girlfriend, Lacey (Rachel Kerbs). What initially seems to be shaping up as a hostage drama a la “The Desperate Hours,” however, becomes something very different indeed.
Dennis is a wonderfully hateful thug, who immediately zeroes in on the intellectual Seth and makes him look weak in front of Polly, who’s been driving their SUV. (Seth can’t drive stick! A sure sign of weenie-hood.) But then Polly runs over some animal that looks like a road pie with spines, and Lacey starts talking to it, thinking it’s her long lost dog Ginger (you knows she’s a goner).
But the Thing, this spiny, splintery mass, trails our scream quartet and backs them into a convenience store. There, the proprietor has already been reduced to a bloody, needle-y mass, and the three (yes, we’re down to three) fight for their lives, with all the duct tape, wire hangers and fireworks they need to keep the porcupine-ish menace at bay.
The mechanics of “Splinter” are remarkably sound — the script moves from place to place with a minimal amount of implausibility, once you get beyond the raging-mold-spore theory by which Seth (conveniently, a Ph.D candidate in biology) figures out what’s out there. The convenience store is a character all its own.
But it’s Polly who’s the engine of all this: She can’t help but respond, however subtly, to Dennis’ man of action while disdaining Seth in his more brainiac moments. Seth acquits himself admirably enough, but Wagner (yes, boys, the spokesmodel in all those Lincoln-Mercury ads), does a wonderful job of internalizing Polly’s wavering allegiance to strong Seth vs. cerebral Seth, mirroring the kinds of psychosexual debates raging among the likely aud for this taut little bloodbath.
The effects, used rather smartly and sparingly, are great: The disembodied hand that chases the characters around their ersatz 7-Eleven is vaguely comical, but only because it’s so terrifying. There’s not a lot of explanation about where the splinters come from, aside from Seth’s scientific theory about heat and cold and a monster that operates on a purely cellular basis. In an era of environmental awareness, Wilkins seems to be after a deeper, nuanced message than pure horror, punctuated by his “Kiss Me Deadly”-style ending.