There is a special kind of exhilaration that comes from watching smart scientists do really dumb things. In the slyly cheesy Splice, a pair of married scientists blithely tromp through nature's domain, genetically engineering a human hybrid with the potential to be Frankenstein's Monster crossed with Rosemary's Baby. The movie is ridiculously over the top, inelegant and so defiantly crazy that it works, reminding you how fun gore and creatures that go bump (and grind) in the night can be. It's a sci-fi horror film, but no actual comedy has made me laugh as much this year as Splice .
Clive (Adrien Brody, Oscar winner just in case you forgot) and Elsa (Sarah Polley, Oscar nominee) are the hot young stars of creepy genetic research. They've spliced together various genes some porcine and grown a pair of hideous beasts called Fred and Ginger, which look like what might happen if an elephant foot and a freestanding penis could reproduce.
This breakthrough lands Clive and Elsa presumably writer-director Vincenzo Natali is deliberately referencing Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive, co-stars of The Bride of Frankenstein on the cover of Wired magazine and earns them the gratitude of some nefarious pharmaceutical corporation with plans to harvest Fred and Ginger's "proteins." Don't sweat the details of the weird science; the movie certainly doesn't. I just ignored Clive and Elsa's lab talk, which tended toward statements like "It must be rogue elements junk genes pushing through," and concentrated on what delicious horror would come out of the incubator next.
Because, obviously, once you've made matching sets of elephant hoof penis babies, you'll want to move right to combining human and pig genes with perhaps a soupçon of bald eagle. And you certainly will want to do this all secretly, without telling your boss Barlow (David Hewlett) or, in Clive's case, his dopey brotherlab assistant Gavin (Brandon McGibbon). Clive, it must be said, is sensible enough to want to kill the rapidly growing fetus that results, but Elsa insists they keep this half-plucked chicken with a human(ish) head alive. She christens it Dren (nerd spelled backward), puts it in dresses and introduces it to the evil pleasures of high- fructose corn syrup.
Elsa is one of those women who don't want to have babies it would overcrowd their apartment, etc. which in the emotional parlance of mainstream moviedom makes her ripe for punishment. It gives us leeway not to worry too much about her fate if and when Dren should develop, say, talons and a stinger. But for a reluctant novice, Elsa takes to parenting with the kind of obnoxious zeal recognizable to anyone who has ever been in a new-mothers group. And because Dren ages rapidly, we're able to watch Elsa cycle through all the stages of parenthood, including the ugly teen years.
The same goes for Clive, who starts out jealous of the attention Elsa gives Dren. ("You're treating her like a pet," he protests.) Early on, Clive tries to drown Dren during a cold bath to counter a mysterious fever. Instead, he revives her. His expression Oh, sure, I meant to do that is priceless. It's no wonder Dren regards Clive with the cowering hostility of an unwanted animal. But soon enough, Clive is playing good cop to Elsa's bad-mother cop, introducing to the film all the dramatic possibilities of an Electra complex and allowing Natali to paint a gleeful send-up of modern parenting.
It's a treat to have actors of Brody's and Polley's caliber in what is essentially a B movie. Most members of the supporting cast are amateurish and awful. The exception is Delphine Chaneac, who plays the postadolescent Dren. The computer-generated imagery that gives her various odd bits, including faun legs, is seamless, resulting in a magnificent creature, and Chaneac's performance is spookily beautiful and witty.
The movie has a fascinating relationship with predictability. Of course this happy family will have to move to an abandoned home in the country. And when they do, we're pleased on multiple levels. There's the recognition that Natali is sending up the genre, parodying it even, but also the anticipation of the suspense to come. You think, Look at these dopes: Are they going to get what they deserve or what?
But sometimes that predictability is merely predictable. By the time Elsa performs a "surgery" that's meant to represent a mother's darkest, most desperate urges to control a wild teen, my interest in her as a character had waned. The film's conclusion feels inevitable, including a last reveal that doesn't surprise. But rather than dwell on it, I think fondly back to the scene when Clive and Elsa, panicked by Dren's racing off into the darkness on her first night in the country, come upon their "daughter" in the woods. She turns to them, smiling sheepishly through bloody rabbit guts. Like Splice, she's hilarious, naughty and excitingly creepy.