Of the many sub-genres of horror, body horror is the one that has the most impact on me. I’m a particularly squeamish individual; easily disturbed whenever I see a stray toenail on the bathroom floor.
Body horror capitalises on the innate revulsion of the often creepy, and occasionally mystifying, internal processes of the human body. It does so by taking this fear to the logical extremes. Degeneration and annihilation of the physical form is at the heart of body horror. It’s frightening just how psychotic the genre is about corrupting humanity. Infectious fungal diseases, invasive parasites, gross mutations; limbs growing out of unnatural places, twisting and impossible forms. This genre is akin to the TV show Embarrassing Bodies if it were conceptualised by H. R. Giger.
Toby Wilkin‘s Splinter sits firmly on the parasite and anatomically incorrect creature part of the body horror spectrum. It is not about having a tiny shard of wood embed itself into your skin; though that is, perhaps, the greater horror.
Splinter begins the only way a modern horror can: with a naive young couple en route to a romantic retreat to the woods. As the boring adult Christopher Robin from the new film might have said: “not again. Always with the bleeding woods”. This ill-advised getaway is interrupted, however, when the prerequisite upheaval occurs and plunges them into chaos – in this particular instance a car-jacking by an thuggish fugitive and his cohort.
Shea Whigham’s cut-throat convict serves to push the plot along the necessary path of idiocy and poor judgement, so that Wilkins is able exploit the conventions of the slasher movie. The convict’s short-sighted determination is what leads to the group becoming trapped in a remote gas station, hunted by a strange parasitic monstrosity and its…progeny. A total idiot ball of a plot.
At this point, it may seem as though I’m being unfair towards Splinter. But Splinter is genuinely one of my favourite horror films of the past decade. The clichéd opening serves only to belie the creativity at work throughout the movie. Like its spiritual forebear The Thing, Wilkins’ creation feels like a believable entity – one that is unwavering in its sole mission to survive and propagate.
‘It’ repurposes the battered and maltreated corpses of its victims into elaborate marionettes; lurching them along on broken limbs and contorting their bodies to better suit its needs. One imaginative sequence sees an afflicted police officer attempting to force its way into the gas station, reaching for the protagonists through the serving hatch. Unable to get to its victims, it actively removes its arm by paring off the flesh using a jagged surface. The limb becomes a new life form, able to act independently of its body.
The sheer simplicity of Splinter’s antagonist is what makes it nightmarish. Resourceful, single-purposed, and durable, the parasite poses an inexhaustible threat to the characters. This is a creature capable of adapting to even the most ruinous of conditions. I was left wanting to know more about this parasite and where it came from, which is always a sign of strong story telling.
Body horror is superb at making the familiar into something entirely alien. Cronenberg‘s Videodrome revels in its disgusting depictions of bodily corruption but makes little effort in explaining what is causing them. Similarly, The Thing remains ambiguous as to the actual nature of its titular monster. Splinter stays with you because it creates more questions than it dares to answer; the truth is this gangrenous elephant in the room, pulsating with fleshy boils.
Unfortunately, what really holds Splinter back is Wilkins’ patchy directing. The plot may be rather dopey and end with the inevitable sequel hook, but it still serves its purpose. Whereas the on-screen action is often rather unfocused, and at times creates difficultly in ascertaining what is supposed to be happening. Curiously this seems to be more of an artistic choice rather than a necessity needed to mask poor special effects. Had the effects been low rent, I might have been positively disposed towards Wilkins’ directorial proclivities. But, strangely, this is not the case.
Never has there been a more well-realised gruesome display of corrupted flesh since the day I hit puberty and inherited the acne curse.