Film Review: Splinter

<i>Splinter</i> is about a scary as a tussle between four vacationers and a small porcupine.

If Splinter were a high-school comedy, Jill Wagner would play the prom queen, Paolo Costanzo the nerd, Shea Whigham the jock and Rachel Kerbs the Goth girl. Chances are this horror entry will appeal only to the high-school set and perhaps some college students looking for a midnight cult flick to laugh at. If Toby Wilkins in his freshman directing debut seeks plaudits for making a scary movie, he is sadly misguided. If he instead wants to send up the creature features of the 1970s and 1980s with all the frights common to such classics as Robert Wise’s Audrey Rose (a man claims his daughter is a reincarnation), The Omen (a man realizes his five-year-old is the Antichrist), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (recalling the horrors of the Vietnam War) and Wes Craven’s slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street, he has this problem: Most of the films of those decades are superior to Splinter, while satirists should be performing on a higher, “gotcha” level than what they’re ribbing.

Splinter brings absolutely nothing new to the genre, but even more dismaying, there is not a moment of genuine fright in its entire 96 minutes. Nor are the characters compelling, as Kai Barry and Ian Shorr’s script offers not a glimmer of wit or humor. Here’s the setup: Seth (Paul Costanzo), a bearded intellectual type with a Ph.D. in biology (which comes in handy), is out celebrating the anniversary of his first date with the pretty and vivacious Polly (Jill Wagner). The plan is to picnic in the wilderness and have sex under the stars, a scheme that goes awry when they are unable to set up a tent. As they head for a motel, they make the mistake of stopping to help Lacey (Rachel Kerbs), a drug-addicted, washed-out, foul-mouthed lowlife whose criminal boyfriend, Dennis (Shea Whigham), convinces the duo to open their car door at the barrel of a gun. Dennis, an escaped convict, allegedly wants the car to drive to Mexico, but when the heap breaks down just outside a gas station/convenience store in the middle of nowhere, they are given only a moment’s notice of terrible things about to happen when they see the badly mangled body of its proprietor.

When the quartet is set upon by a critter that resembles a tempestuous porcupine with ultra-long quills capable of giving those petting him a splinter and worse, Seth uses his knowledge of biology to understand that this thing is just a dumb but dangerous organism looking for food, which it locates by heat. Since human bodies are warmer than the Twinkies and chips sold at the convenience store, the body count begins to rise. After consuming a meal, it goes for yet more with its unremitting appetite and grows increasingly larger.

What finally dooms Splinter aside from its weak dialogue, unoriginal events and lack of wit or interesting characters is Nelson Cragg’s shaky camerawork coupled with David Michael Maurer’s rapid editing. We’re accustomed to seeing this vertigo-producing nonsense in the fights that take place in thrillers, a technique designed either for an audience with low attention spans or for disguising the fact that nothing much is actually going on. If Wilkins wants to give us a real bloodcurdling horror movie next time around—which he is probably planning, given the setup in Splinter for a sequel—he and his photographer might take another look at Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II, which takes advantage of a sinister foreign destination but, more important, features a camera held nice and steady while rich Americans amuse themselves on vacation by torturing, bleeding and slowly killing their victims. CGI does not begin to match human-to-human contact for terror.