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.