Popular Culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing. It’s impossible to see everything and as a result, some things fall through the cracks. Maybe a book or movie or game was critically panned, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t make a lasting connection at the time. Whatever the case, these bits of pop cultural refuse are forgotten and overdue for A Second Glance.
Last Time on A Second Glance: Polka Party (1986)
Splinter is a 2008 horror film directed by Toby Wilkins and stars Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner, and Shea Whigham. The film is a creature feature involving people trapped in a gas station in the woods as a monster attempts to get in. Critics gave Splinter mostly positive reviews and the film turns up on a lot of “Great Movies You’ve Never Seen” lists. In spite of Splinter’s popularity among those who have actually seen it, the movie is a relative obscurity.
Dennis Farell (Shea Whigham) is a fugitive from the law who kidnaps a young couple when his vehicle breaks down. The group are attacked by a strange creature covered in bizarre splinter-like spines and are forced to take refuge inside a gas station. Now the husband (Paulo Costanzo) and wife (Jill Wanger) are forced to work with their captor to find a way to either kill the creature or escape as the thing tries to find its way inside.
The creature in question is a parasitic mold which is attracted to body heat and infects its prey via its splinter protrusions. Once a splinter has embedded itself in living tissue it spreads through the host body until it has taken full control of the organism. An assimilated host can contort itself into impossible positions, attach parts from another host, or remove parts of itself which become independent creatures.
Splinter is a very strong horror film and the reasons why come down to two things: character and effects.
The dynamic between our three leads isn’t new and it’s the kind of thing that could easily fall flat. Each of our characters has strengths and weaknesses that complement the others. Paulo Costanzo’s Seth is intelligent and resourceful but not terribly great under pressure or capable of action. Jill Wagner’s Polly is brave and tough but her ideas for potential avenues of escape are all pretty unimaginative and weak. Farell is strong and a real man of action but he’s not very smart and his bravery is sporadic. At different points throughout the movie each of the leads is made to look foolish or pathetic in the face of the other two. This rotation of who is playing the fool shifts the “hero” dynamic around to whoever is taking the best course of action in any given scene.
Paulo Costanzo is his usual awkwardly charming self. Costanzo has built a career around a sort of “cool nerd” persona and this film uses that familiar ground to build a character. Seth is smart but he’s not terribly masculine in the traditional sense, this is in contrast to Polly who is outdoorsy and tough. Seth doesn’t know how to change a tire and can’t drive a stick-shift, he can extrapolate on what the creature might be but can’t use that information to form a plan at first. These things are used to emasculate and shame Seth; we’re given the impression that he often feel inadequate or weak around Polly.
Jill Wagner could blend in with hundreds of other tough, streetwise, brunettes with intense eyes and dingy tank tops that populate horror movies made after 1996. It is to Wagner’s credit that Polly doesn’t come across as generic like several other characters of her stripe. We get the impression that Polly gets exasperated with Seth’s lack of tangible skills, particularly in tense situations such as the ones in the movie. It is also clear that, though she gets frustrated, she loves Seth very much and would gladly die to save him.
All three actors are spectacular but Shea Whigham is the easy standout. Farell runs the gamut of cocky, detestable, dumb, endearing, heroic, villainous, and a million other qualities throughout the film. Whigham’s performance brings the character to life. Whigham has an affable everyman charm that brings across Farell’s likable qualities, yet he also has the acting chops to make him antagonistic when needed. Of course, Farell doesn’t come into his own as a character until he’s no longer a threat to Seth and Polly. The criminal has a tragic backstory and a bizarre sense of honor that accentuate the hero aspects of his anti-hero persona. As the movie progresses Farell gains a sense of respect for Seth and Polly and it forms a sort of desperate friendship between the three and it’s this chemistry that holds the film together.
The monster is spectacular, simultaneously a throwback and a wholly new concept. There are shades of The Thing in the splinterbeast and it’s clear that the film’s concept, as well as special effects, owe a tremendous amount of fealty to John Carpenter and Rob Bottin. The splinterbeast is terrifying and disgusting with its rotten corpse aesthetic. Even the severed limbs that scurry across the floor with deadly intent, which should look hokey, are genuinely upsetting to look at. The gore effects are goopy and painful and the film features very little CG. The film is immensely bloody and doesn’t shy away from showing the damage done by the monster. The film features an amputation scene that is harder to watch than even the one from The Ruins.
My only complaint on the effects front is that the monster’s appearances are accompanied by jump cuts, strobe lights, and shaky cam. Obscuring the monster feels like a self-conscious move on the filmmakers’ part, which is really a shame since what few glimpses we get of the monster are great.
Splinter is a solid, efficient, disgusting, disturbing, and smart horror movie. It truly is a shame that this movie hasn’t become a bigger favorite among the celebrated favorites of the ’00s. Splinter absolutely deserves a wider audience and if you consider yourself a lover of monster movies, body horror, or just horror movies with characters who matter, then this is a must see.