Splinter
Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // $26.98 // April 14, 2009
Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 18, 2009
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
E - M A I L
this review to a friend
R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
"Looks like I underestimated you. You can't change a tire...fuck if you can't chop off an arm."
"He's a keeper."


It was
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supposed to be a romantic getaway -- or, at least, as romantic as getting a rash and a bad night's sleep in a half-assedly put together tent can be. Instead of anniversary sex under the stars or even holing up in a dingy motel, though, Polly (Jill Wagner) and Seth (Paulo Costanzo) spend the night held hostage by a couple of bank robbers on the lam (Shea Whigham and Rachel Kerbs). That carjacked SUV is trashed when Polly hits some sort of spiny animal in the middle of the road, but they're somehow able to limp to an out-of-the-way gas station. Chest-thumpin' redneck Dennis is hoping to just grab a few things of radiator fluid and get back on the road, but instead they find themselves swarmed by the mangled, twisted limbs of people infected by whatever it was they ran over. This creature reproduces by jabbing its splintery spines into its victims and quickly consuming them, body and soul, and its sights are now set on the fresh meat that's barricaded themselves in this fishbowl of a gas station.

That runthrough the plot might make Splinter sound like just another spam-in-a-cabingas station horror flick, but that's kind of the point. Splinter isn't trying to be revolutionary; it's trying to scare the shit out of you. The movie strips the genre down to bare metal: claustrophobically trapped, where the question isn't if you'll escape but just how long you can manage to stave off the inevitable. You will die; it's just a matter of when. Part of the reason Splinter is so unrelentingly tense is that it's staffed by a small, talented cast. Friday the 13th sequels would pile a small army of clunky twentysomething actors into a couple of cabins and butcher them one-by-one. Splinter, meanwhile, is a three character piece for almost the entire movie, and it takes the time to flesh them out. They're characters, not red shirts with a sign reading "Hi! I'm about to be carved apart into bloody, fist-sized chunks; ask me how!" slung around their necks. Horror is much more tense when you don't want to see the few scattered survivors be slaughtered. Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner -- the two most familiar faces in front of the camera -- infuse their characters with a believable sense of depth and personality. Likewise for Shea Whigham, who undergoes a couple of dramatic transformations throughout the course of the movie. I'll admit that Whigham seemed like he was trying too hard to settle into the gruff redneck stereotype at first -- and even this can be explained away as a mask Dennis is trying to wear -- but he becomes more and more compelling as Splinter screams along.

This is
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a movie whose plot doesn't hinge on stupid people doing stupid things. Most of their plans to claw their way out of the gas station are clever and pretty well-thought-out, and Splinter is sharp enough to eke tension out of the quieter moments when there isn't some sort of infected creature carving a path of destruction across the screen. Most movies with this sort of backwater backdrop usually settle for a machete-toting maniac, but Splinter opts for a cross between Alien and one of Romero's Dead flicks. These are ravenous, unrelenting creatures driven by pure instinct. They can't be reasoned with. They don't toy with their prey. They're just out there, waiting to dig their spines into another victim and spread the contagion. Taking a cue from movies like Return of the Living Dead and The Video Dead, the nature of the infection means that a headshot won't do it. Butchering one of these creatures just means there are that many more parts on the prowl, and the disembodied hands that attack throughout Splinter are a darkly comedic but still unsettling cross between Evil Dead 2 and the Facehuggers in Aliens. Some of its most disturbing moments don't even have some sort of otherworldly monster on-screen, though: I've never cringed this much at a box cutter and a cinder block, and it's hard to believe something as simple as a bag of ice and a thermometer can be so unnervingly tense.

What doesn't work so well? Splinter's monsters take a cue from J-horror and are a mass of twisted, skittering limbs, but knowing that this wouldn't really come across as disturbing in long, lingering glimpses, the editing and camerawork are frantic and choppy during the attacks. This does add an extra level of urgency and unease, and while it's effective to a point, the quick-cutting can be kind of distracting too. I'll admit to being kind of disappointed that there are so few fully-consumed creatures throughout the movie as well. They're generally a threat looming on the other side of the glass, and the survivors spend more time squaring off against disembodied hands than the spiny zombies that lurk outside. Those scenes work extremely well, but I'd bet Splinter would've been even better off with just one more direct assault from a full-sized creature.

Director Toby Wilkins may have only had a handful of actors, one set, and a lean budget to work with, but he uses those limitations as an advantage, fleshing out a strong sense of claustrophobia and well-realized characters to up the tension. Splinter takes a familiar formula and makes a hell of a horror flick out of it. Lean, gruesome, and intense, Splinter easily ranks as one of the most devastatingly effective horror movies the genre has to offer on Blu-ray right now. Recommended.


Video
Shot digitally yet convincingly film-like, Splinter looks amazing on Blu-ray. The scope image is exceptionally crisp and detailed, and it's bolstered further by an almost tactile sense of dimensionality. The bulk of Splinter is set against the backdrop of a cramped convenience store, with its fluourescent lights bathing the movie in a cold, antiseptic glow, but the photography is heavy on lush greens and sunny exteriors at the outset for contrast. The digital photography holds up much better than expected under low light, never devolving into the noisy, smeary mess that pops up on lower-end cameras, and black levels are generally deep and inky throughout. The VC-1 encode never shows any signs of strain either, even with all of the frantic quick-cutting around the attacks. The extras and commentaries make it a point to mention just how low Splinter's budget is, but it looks every bit as good in high definition as movies with many, many times its sticker price.

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Audio
Splinter also packs a first-rate DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, presented here in 5.1 with 24-bit audio. I was particularly impressed by the clarity and distinctness of every last element in the mix, from the instrumentation in the score to the thunderous sound effects. This is a case in point that Blu-ray is as compelling for its upgrade in audio as it is for its high-def visuals. The multichannel setup is used to especially strong effect to flesh out that inescapable sense of claustrophobia, the almost deafening roar of cicadas, and the unsettling sound of some sort of unseen creature skittering from one speaker to the next. Splinter packs a colossal low-end, from the foundation-rattling stings in the score to one of the infected relentlessly slamming her bloodied head against the plexiglass. The sound design isn't obnoxiously aggressive -- it's clever enough to recognize the skincrawling impact that long stretches of silence can have -- but still, even with as kinetic as the mix can get at times, its dialogue is never overwhelmed or drowned out. Again, Splinter may have been shot on the cheap, but there's no sign of any corners being cut in this thoroughly impressive lossless soundtrack.

There aren't any dubs or alternate soundtracks this time around, but subtitles are served up in English (SDH) and Spanish.


Extras
The only high definition extras on Splinter are trailers for The Mutant Chronicles, Eden Log, and Let the Right One In. The lack of high-def extras otherwise seems like someone at Magnolia fumbled something along the way; at least one of these featurettes was produced for HDNet, and the smart money says that means there's a high definition version floating around there somewhere. Most of the mini-featurettes look to have been produced to spread the word about Splinter virally online.
  • The Splinter Creature (4 min.): Splinter uses CGI very sparingly, and this featurette takes a look at the design and construction of the puppet behind one of the mangled, infected victims, including the otherworldly movements of a gymnast who helped bring it to life.

  • Creature Concept Art Gallery (90 seconds): The title says it all, really, compiling a set of sketches, paintings, and rough CG renders fleshing out the look of the creatures over time.

  • The Wizard (1 min.): The shortest of the disc's featurettes takes a look at the bearded former Green Beret who was put on the payroll to blow shit up.

  • Building the Gas Station (2 min.): This
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    featurette shows how a concrete bowl in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma was heavily refitted and fully stocked as the gas station where virtually every last moment of Splinter is set.

  • Shooting Digitally (2 min.): As keen as director Toby Wilkins typically has been on shooting on film, he runs through some of the advantages offered by going the digital route with Arriflex's newest cameras.

  • Oklahoma Weather (2 min.): While Splinter's characters were squaring off against infected, disembodied zombies, its cast and crew were struggling with torrential downpours and flooding that plagued the shoot.

  • How to Make a Splinter Pumpkin (2 min.): Hey, just in time for Halloween...! Jill Wagner shows off how to splinterize a pumpkin without having to fret about ancient creatures awakened by oil drilling.

  • HDNet - A Look at Splinter (4 min.): Kind of odd that something produced for HDNet would be churned out in standard definition, but...whatever. "A Look at Splinter" is a decent promotional featurette, breezing through the plot and casting notes through a set of interviews and clips from the flick.

  • Audio Commentaries: Director Toby Wilkins drives both of Splinter's audio commentaries. He's joined in the first track by actors Shea Whigham, Paulo Costanzo, and Jill Wagner, and much of the discussion is naturally rooted around fleshing out their characters and trying to perform under such oppressive heat, a low budget, and an almost impossibly tight schedule. As much time as the four of them spend laughing, this is a pretty honest conversation, noting a handful of the things they really would've liked to have done differently and responding to criticism about the jittery camerawork.

    There isn't too much overlap with the second commentary, this time with Wilkins chatting alongside director of photography Nelson Cragg and editor David Michael Maurer. This is a more technically oriented discussion, touching on the deliberately raw direction, the fair amount of digital painting, settling on an aspect ratio and even shutter speeds, working with this specific digital camera, and editing together individual frames from different takes. I really enjoyed both tracks, and they tread such different ground that fans of the movie ought to find both worth a listen. Keep in mind that the commentaries are hidden under the setup menu rather than listed with the rest of the extras.

The Final Word
Nah, Splinter doesn't take much of a stab at redefining the genre or anything, but it's a hell of a horror movie, grabbing the best of what worked out of its favorite fright flicks and cramming it together in a lean, bloody, and intense 82 minutes. Recommended.


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