The concept is about as basic as it gets: a small number of people taking refuge from an outside force that threatens them. Agatha Christie used a variation of the formula in her classic mystery And Then There Were None (a.k.a Ten Little Indians), Alfred Hitchcock used differing versions of the formula in both The Birds and Rear Window, and most famously in the world of horror, it has been used in everything from Night of the Living Dead to Alien to The Thing. Sure, by now it isn't exactly the most original premise, but if it is done right, especially under the guise of the horror genre, it can make for a damn entertaining movie. At the same time, when this time-proved concept is done poorly, the result is a laughable hodge podge of tired clichés and predictable conventions. And because this concept is so simple, it is easy for some less talented filmmakers to delude themselves into thinking that following the Night of the Living Dead model will be easy, when in fact, it can be the kiss of death.
Splinter closely adheres to the rules of the small cast in limited locations being stalked by a deadly force genre of film, and in doing so sets itself up to be just another forgettable horror movie with nothing new to say. But the fact that the film is so well made, and that it does vary slightly from the formula and conventions that dictate this particular genre, makes Splinter both a pleasant surprise, and an entertaining experience for any true horror fan.
Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner co-star as Seth and Polly, a city-dwelling yuppie couple who go camping to get away for their anniversary. Seth, however, isn't too keen on the woods, and convinces Polly that they should leave the campsite and spend the night at a motel. Driving along an isolated road in the backwoods of Oklahoma, the couple makes a deadly mistake when they stop for someone they think is a stranded motorist. It turns out that Lacey (Rachel Kerbs) is the strung-out junkie girlfriend of escaped convict Dennis (Shea Whigham), who is on the run from the law. Dennis and Lacey take Seth and Polly hostage, but things take a turn for the worse when the car accidentally runs over some wild animal, causing the tire to blowout. What none of them realize at the time is that the animal they've run over was infected by some sort of parasitic creature that can shoot out tiny splinters, which then infects whatever it touches. When the car overheats, they are forced to pull over at a rural gas station where the attendant was earlier attacked by the splinter creature. Lacey quickly falls victim to the disgusting monster, which reanimates her corpse as Dennis, Seth and Polly take refuge in the gas station. And if things could not get any worse, Dennis himself is infected, and the parasitic creature inside of him slowly begins to take control of his body.
When all is said and done, Splinter is not exactly a film that can be considered a classic by any stretch of the imagination. It is, however, very entertaining, maintaining a tight pace with a great level of tension that remains consistent once the story really kicks into gear. There are a few genuinely creepy moments, punctuated with some great gore effects, and a creature that remains hidden enough from the camera that it manages to remain convincingly scary throughout the entire film. But what makes the film really work are the characters, who start out largely as conventional clichés, but actually have enough depth and dimension that they have more growth than is usually found in films of this nature. Of course other films have had what is essentially the antagonist making a heroic shift at some point, but only a handful have pulled it off as effectively as Splinter, as Whigman's menacing Dennis undergoes a well-executed character transformation. The same is true for Polly and Seth, who in a throwaway genre entry would be characters whose deaths are greeted with applause, but in this film keep us rooting for their survival.
Splinter is an effective horror film with solid scares and splatter that is held together by solid performances. Director Toby Wilkins makes the most of the basic concept, effectively utilizing the small cast and the limited locations to maximum effect. Wilkins direction, along with Nelson Cragg's mostly hand-held photography, creates a stylish look that gives Splinter an organic feel, as opposed to the more manufactured and lifeless aesthetic of so many other horror films. But for all the credit that goes to Wilkins and Cragg, special attention must go to editor David Maurer. Splinter is an incredibly well-edited film, so much so that you don't really notice how well cut together it is at first, just that it has a really solid, tight pace. But Splinter, which holds up to repeated viewings anyway, deserves to be watched simply to see how beautifully it was edited. For anyone who has endured mediocre movies just to get their horror fix, Splinter delivers enough quality filmmaking to help alleviate some of the bitter taste left behind by lesser pictures.