In the independent-film world, there's the ongoing phenomenon of the "calling-card movie," a feature that exists almost solely to catapult its director to Hollywood, not as an end in itself. So congratulations, Splinter director Toby Wilkins, you've just won an opportunity to make The Grudge 3. To be fair, Wilkins' indie horror film does have some virtues: It's taut and relentlessly economical at 82 minutes, its creature design and visual effects are both convincing and sparingly employed, and the mostly single-location setting is admirably resourceful. But the film lacks that spark of originality or humor or thematic resonance that might have elevated it from forgettable genre time-passer to something more lasting.
It's unfortunate, because Splinter initially seems like a clever attempt to cross-pollinate the hostage thriller with the creature feature, creating tension on both ends. Paulo Costanzo (late of TV's Joey) and Jill Wagner star as an awkward romantic pair; he's a brainy doctoral student in biology (i.e.: a wimp) and she's conventionally attractive, brassy, and assertive. (Perhaps they met in the world of Revenge Of The Nerds V.) Intending to spend their anniversary under the stars, they're carjacked by another couple (Shea Whigham and Rachel Kerbs) and forced to drive into the night. After getting a flat, they encounter what appears to be porcupine roadkill, but it's alive and its quills (or splinters) are infectious and deadly.
For most of the second half, the action shifts to a gas-station convenience store, where the principals lock themselves away while the prickly creatures lurk outside. They try to come up with solutions—Costanzo advocates something brainy, Wagner something brawny—and eventually face a big, violent showdown. Some of the effects have a charming, Evil Dead 2-like quality, but little of the attendant wit, and the hostage subplot gets consumed entirely by the standard-issue mayhem. There's potential for a lot more excitement in Splinter, but Wilkins seems content just to bring it across the finish line.