Lovers and genetic engineers, Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody play a childless couple in Splice. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’ve never created life. As scientists, they can claim Fred and Ginger, two lab-grown specimens made from mixing material from several different animals. The creatures look a bit like what might happen if a slug devoured a turtle, but looks don’t really matter in the world of corporate science. Yet despite their success, Polley and Brody soon face a change of duties that will take their gene-splicing toys away. But not, that is, until they make one last go-for-broke creation that throws in a little human DNA just to see what happens.
That Brody and Polley’s characters are named Clive and Elsa should alert fans of old horror movies what sort of story they’re in for, and director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali (best known for the microbudgeted cult favorite Cube) doesn’t let down those expecting a 21st century twist on Frankenstein. He throws in elements of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, too, but ultimately Splice owes as much to David Lynch’s parenthood-inspired Eraserhead as any other film. For all the gleaming technology and echoes of cloning, stem cell research, and other contemporary issues, the horror here stems from the couple’s attempts to keep a fragile, newborn creature alive and do right by her as she grows.
Their experiment with creating a human-animal hybrid at first yields an awful, hatchet-headed monkey-thing with big expressive eyes that send Polley’s maternal instincts into overdrive. Calling it “Dren”—the name of their employer, Nerd, spelled backwards—Polley and Brody take to raising it as their own, first in secret corners of the lab and then on an abandoned family farm. Dren ages, rapidly, and begins to look and act more human, or at least human enough to stir feelings of concern and discomfort in her creators as she matures into a melancholy, willful creature played by Delphine Chanéac.
Played with black humor that never gets in the way of the horror, Natali’s film cleverly exploits Dren’s uncanny semi-humanity. As a child, she wears a happy expression, but her bald head and the tail poking out beneath her dress give her away. Later, the camera lingers on Chanéac’s supple thighs as they rest atop what looks like the lower legs of a shaved mule. Brody and Polley attempt to protect her from the world, only to watch her turn rebellious and resent them for it.
Any resemblance to the actual experience of parenting is, of course, not at all coincidental. Shooting with a cool reserve and a steely-blue color palette, Natali keeps the film unsettling by using icky creature effects, but just as often by offering up grotesque caricatures of real-life parenting discomforts, from the exhaustion to the collapse of privacy to the difficulty of instilling a moral code in an offspring that often seems alien. The film keeps a sometimes too-clinical distance but pushes buttons from afar, including a final act that turns into a series of outrages bound to upset audiences who might have stumbled in expecting the usual monster-of-the-week horror movie instead of this thriving, disturbing, thoughtful mutant of a movie.