Traditionally, the summer months are a bad time to go to the theater if you crave challenging fare.  It’s the time for loud, spectacle-driven filmmaking that people can get lost in without having to pay much attention.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but (a) most modern summer blockbusters are wretched and (b) their multi-screen booking arrangements cut out the room for any left-of-center fare.  The summer is even rougher if you are look for a horror film.  If you’re lucky enough to get some dark fantasy at your local multiplex during the summer, it’s likely to be really simplistic, neutered to a level of PG-13 blandness or all of the above.

Thus, the appearance of Splice on screens during June is thoroughly intriguing: an R-rated horror flick with sci-fi elements, arthouse-flick stars and a director better known for brainy straight-to-video fare.  The trailers didn’t do it many favors, essentially pitching it to viewers as a Species ripoff with updated CGI, but appearances are deceptive in this case.  Very deceptive.  Splice is one of the most disturbing and intelligent horror films that Your Humble Reviewer has seen in a theater in the last several years – and is thus a breath of fresh air during the stifling summer ban on smart filmmaking.

Splice essentially updates the Frankenstein mythos for the era of cloning and stem-cells.  Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are a pair of romantically-involved geneticists who have been crossbreeding different forms of animal life so they can synthesize new proteins to be used in medicines for livestock.  They are gearing up to introduce human genetic material into the experiment when their parent corporation decides to shut down the experimental phase and have them synthesize some saleable products.

Neither Clive nor Elsa want to abandon their experiments – particularly Elsa – so they continue in secret.  Elsa manipulates Clive into adding a human embryo in the experiment and using machines to carry it to term.  The success of this new wrinkle far outpaces their expectations and the result is “Dren” (Delphine Chaneac), a part-human, part-multiple-animals creature.  Since Dren has an accelerated life cycle, they decide to keep it alive and observe its progress in secret (chilly braniac Elsa even becomes motherly toward their new charge).  Their fatal flaw is underestimating how many human characteristics Dren has – and what follows has the trio of central characters experiencing multiple types of consequences for their actions: moral, psychological and lethal.

Simply put, Splice is not your typical monster mash.  In fact, gore and mayhem are doled out sparingly.  Instead, the film is an intense, often psychologically brutal meditation on the perils of parenthood:  Elsa is the domineering mother who discovers how hard it is break cycles of past familial behavior, Clive is the errant father who either withholds his feelings or expresses them in inappropriate ways and Dren is the sensitive child who reacts to her parent’s protective, stifling ways in unpredictable and constantly shifting ways.  Splice is frequently compared to David Cronenberg’s early work  and the comparison is valid: it is often very reminiscent of The Brood, except the thematic focus is parenting instead of divorce.

This approach works quite well because Splice is an uncompromising piece of work at all levels.  Natali never flinches from moments of lacerating drama or the disturbing undercurrents of his storyline.  Polley and Brody give very brave performances, fully investing themselves emotionally into characters that act in difficult, sometimes reprehensible ways.   Chaneac in particular is worthy of praise, using her expressive face and skillfully-controlled physicality to express a variety of complex emotions without words.  Her work is aided by a seamless blend of prosthetics and CGI that make the genetically outlandish conceit of her character totally believable.

That said, Splice isn’t without its flaws.  The dialogue doesn’t always keep the pace with the film’s heady ideas, sometimes lapsing into a generic, on-the-nose lines that don’t do its intelligent and complex characters justice.  The film’s climax also has a rushed, somewhat unfinished feel, with a chaotic pileup of incidents that requires a few bits of irrational behavior from its participants.  That said, the film never cops out on its vision during these problematic moments and it ends on a quietly disturbing note that is a wonderful difference from the usual last-minute “gotcha” scare trotted out for most modern horror fare.

If you like your horror and sci-fi fare to be smart and transgressive then Splice, flaws and all, is a film worth seeing.  It had Your Humble Reviewer squirming, asking himself “is it really going to go there?” and then recoiling when it did… several times.  You don’t get that kind of movie-going experience very often during the summer – and anyone craving a darker, more thoughtful respite from the usual June-July-August cinematic chaos should check it out.