Format: Streaming video from Hoopla Digital on the Nook.
One of the reasons I enjoy low-budget horror films is that in the hands of the right person, wonders can be worked. A good, inventive director, willing actors and a creative team can do a lot with a little. It’s why I love little movies like Pontypool. A good premise is created and a lot is done to ramp up tension, with a little bit of practical effects used to heighten the realism, and there’s your movie. Splinter is like that. I can’t imagine that this was made on much more than a shoestring, but it’s got an earnestness that really works for it. It’s creative and inventive and has a truly brutal scene near the end that I found difficult to watch.
Splinter is also a movie that doesn’t screw around, and it can’t at only 82 minutes including the final credits. Fifteen minutes in, and we’ve established that there is a horrifying creature, we’ve got main characters trying to have a romantic camping weekend, and a couple of criminals who happily carjack our campers. Our couple is Seth (Paulo Costanzo, immediately recognizable if you’ve ever seen the show Royal Pains) and Polly Watt (Jill Wagner). When they accidentally destroy their tent on their one-year anniversary camping trip, they return to the road to be carjacked by wanted fugitive Blake Sherman (Charles Baker) and his junkie girlfriend Lacey (Rachel Kerbs). Blake and Lacey just want to get to Mexico to elude the police, and Seth and Polly are their ticket there. Unfortunately, they hit an animal in the middle of the road.
The animal is infected by what will be our monster in Splinter. It’s some sort of mold or fungus that infects anything warm-blooded, feeds on whatever it can in the body, and then animates what is left in search of other things to infect. As a way of transmitting the infection, the infected creatures sport black spikes of nastiness. This punctures a tire and also rips open the radiator. So, while the run-over critter starts to move and everyone freaks the hell out, the car can only go a few miles before the radiator overheats and sidelines them at a lonely gas station. Sadly for our quartet, this gas station is the one we see at the very start of the film when the lone attendant is infected by a forest creature.
And now the fun begins. The infected attendant (Shea Whigham) has reanimated and attacks, infecting Lacey and killing her. Don’t worry, though. Lacey won’t be down for long. The three survivors hide out in the gas station and try to figure out what to do while the reanimated bodies try to get inside. One of the more inventive elements of Splinter is that the animated body parts are independent of each other. They can (and do!) break off and search for prey on their own, which means we’ll have some severed hands and arms looking to do bad things to our survivors. It’s also during this period that we discover Blake was infected while changing the tire, and now his arm has started to go bad a la Ash in Evil Dead 2.
Since we need at least one more victim, we get a visit from a local sheriff (Laurel Whitsett) who wants to bring in Blake and is more or less served up as fresh meat to the splinter fungus. After all, two rampaging fungus zombies isn’t nearly enough to make things interesting.
This is more or less the entire plot of Splinter, which operates very much like a classic horror movie. It fast-forwards us through the typical horror opening since the running time is so short. At 25 minutes or so in, we’re fully into the horror movie goodness. There’s not much in the way of exposition and we learn about what is going on pretty much as the characters do. That gives the film a particular edge—there’s very little that we can figure out ahead of the characters on screen. Oh, we get a few things here and there. We’re pretty sure that they’ve stopped at the infected gas station, for instance, and we figure out that Blake is infected before anyone else does, but as far as the creature/fungus, we’re in the dark until the characters are not.
The biggest downside here is the excessive use of shaky cam, particularly in the last act. I’m sure that a lot of this was done to disguise the fact that this film was made with little budget, and not giving us a clear view of the animated fungus creatures is a way to make them look a lot scarier than they would be in a steady shot. I get that, but it’s disappointing, especially since there are a few attacking body parts that are shown clearly and look pretty good.
Really, though, Splinter is entirely entertaining for what it wants to be. There are a few gross-out sequences, and when the trio finally decides to deal with Blake’s infected arm, I had a hard time watching for some of it—it’s a horrifying moment. There’s a lot that Splinter does right and what it does wrong is easy to chalk up to budget and genre limitations. Yes, it dives into trope moments—Blake hiding his infection until near the end, for instance—but it does well for what it is and succeeds generally in what it wants to do.
Why to watch Splinter: It’s ferociously inventive.
Why not to watch: Excessive shaky cam.