Splinter is a throwback monster movie that has been made countless times over: a diverse collection of victims who would otherwise never cross paths are trapped in an enclosed space or building while a mysterious overly aggressive monster waits for an opportunity to put them out of their misery. These niche horror genre films born from their B-movie forefathers are craved but today they are few and far between, much less a good one.
That is partially why Splinter is such a breath of fresh air. There are no huge revelations, twists or something so amazing and astonishing that will interrupt sleep. But there is obvious genuine care put into the film’s production by its director Toby Wilkins, fellow crew and small cast that defy a miniscule budget. Because of this “effort” Splinter looks and behaves bigger and more important than its story ultimately is.
Take the set-up for example: a couple out celebrating their anniversary in backwoods USA is kidnapped by high profile fugitives when stopping to assist a woman stumbling out onto the road. Their car’s radiator overheats which forces them into an isolated and generally creepy convenience station. A few moments later, a freakish monster attacks one of them by the pumps, leaving the others trapped in the station with no clue as to what just happened and no immediate means of escape.
In the hands of an amateurish filmmaker this overly simplistic framework is a recipe for a direct to the trashcan disaster. To Wilkins credit he is able to create an intriguing dynamic between the characters that approach the threat and neutralizing it in dissimilar ways. You’re bound to relate to one’s view whether it is attacking the monster, making a run for it, or intellectually piecing together the monster’s motive. Their natural dynamic and friction offers plenty of incentive to follow along the monster’s potential prey.
The rest of Splinter’s success is derivative from its host-feeding monster’s movements and design. Rather than taking over a host’s body and going on a rampage in a human-like manner, this parasite is newly born and still learning the world. The human body is as alien to it as it is alien to a human. While the parasite “splinters” throughout a human body, it takes twists and turns a body is not designed to resulting in wild contortions, broken limbs and generally sick and disgusting disfigurement of bones into repurposed alignments.
Wilkins’ only mistake while filming Splinter is his inability to keep the camera still when the monster is on-screen. Most of the film sans-monster is shot with a slight unsteadiness and occasional herky-jerky movement. When the monster attacks it is like a swarm of bees is simultaneously launching an offensive on the editor. The movements are fast and movements faster making it impossible to get a clean look at the beast’s intricate design. Even so, Splinter is a fun throwback monster ride that deserves a sequel see the light of day.
Wilkins chose to shoot Splinter entirely with digital cameras as he felt the technology had caught up with and surpassed what traditional film had to offer. This decision greatly impacts the Blu-ray Disc version of Splinter whose 1080p VC-1 encoded 2.35:1 picture is nothing short of spectacular to view.
A good comparison to Splinter on Blu-ray would be Lionsgate’s Crank which was also filmed digitally. Unlike Crank, the bulk of Splinter was shot at night which presents far more complex encoding issues than Crank’s daytime color palette. Blacks are inky and deep while skin tones are natural and colors, when sparingly used, leap off the screen. Detail is strong when it is supposed to be, only blurring out during deliberate depth of field focus shots Wilkins uses quite frequently. Splinter on Blu-ray is “lifelike” and stunning no matter what size screen it is viewed on.
Much of Splinter’s video acuity can be contributed to a digital-to-digital transfer onto Blu-ray Disc. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track must rely on the grunt work behind-the-scenes to ensure Elia Cmiral’s score and a wealth of sound effects match the professionalism found in the on-screen visuals.
Any doubt the home video production team weren’t up to the task are erased in the opening sequence as Cmiral’s score balances itself between the front and rear soundstage. Larger big budget productions will oftentimes use the rear surrounds to compliment the front mains. This mix is unafraid to push the rears beyond the mains with score or effects at any time – or in any direction, including “up.” LFE cues in Cmiral’s score are deep and pronounced when called upon. Whether an intimate verbal exchange or panic stricken fight for life as bones crackle within the creature, dialogue clarity is never comprised and always sharp as a tack. This lossless mix lives up to the high standards set by the video transfer and does an already stellar soundtrack justice.
Splinter’s bonus features are all presented in standard definition and 2.0 audio save for a trio of trailers. A pair of commentary tracks is the highlight while the remaining pieces offer brief glimpses into the production.
Audio Commentaries – The first of two commentaries was recorded with director Toby Wilkins and actors Shea Whigham, Paulo Costanzo, and Jill Wagner. Wilkins comes across as incredibly laidback with his smooth British accent casually talking through each scene. The three main cast members’ jump in intermittingly with jokes and anecdotes that lighten up what would have been a fairly drab but relatively informational commentary had Wilkins gone solo.
The second commentary also features Wilkins but trades in performers for fellow filmmakers Nelson Cragg (director of photography) and David Michael Maurer (editor). The humor and entertainment value from the previous commentary is gone, replaced with technical filmmaking chatter that will speak strongest to young and aspiring filmmakers. Of special interest are lengthy discussions delving into how shooting digitally influenced how certain shots were framed and composited.
The Splinter Creature (4:07) – Wilkins discusses how movements for the creature were formed more than the visual aesthetics. A gymnast and a mime were cast specifically for the unique body movements they were capable of.
Creature Concept Art Gallery (1:28) – Various computer and hand drawn renders of the creature’s various incarnations and body quirks.
The Wizard (1:10) – An aged special effects artist and former military man who specializes in blowing stuff up spends a few seconds showing his rigging.
Building the Gas Station (1:54) – The gas station serving as the main location for most of Splinter is authentic on film, so much so that questioning whether it was constructed by the crew or pre-existing is natural until later in the story.
Shooting Digitally (2:25) – Wilkins discusses his reasoning for shooting digital versus on traditional film. His brief argument is strongly backed up by the finished product.
Oklahoma Weather (1:57) – Oklahoma was the ideal place to shoot except for one intangible: the weather. The production had to be halted on countless occasions because of torrential rains and even flooding. With such a tight budget it is remarkable the rain deprived Los Angeles-based crew was able to fight through it.
How to Make a Splinter Pumpkin (2:21) – Jill Wagner gets artsy and creates a Splinter pumpkin Martha Stewart-style that any kindergartener could whip out in 3 minutes or less.
HDNet: A Look at Splinter (4:35) – Not even the HDNet special is in high-def. Not sure how that happened, but as anticipated this is a fluffy promo for Splinter and properly the last bonus feature in Magnolia’s list.
Trailers (HD) – 1080p trailers with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio are included for Magnolia’s Eden Log, Mutant Chronicles and Let the Right One In. The studio neglected to include a trailer for the disc’s namesake.
Even though most of the bonus features are under five minutes and offered in standard definition, Splinter is an easy “purchase” recommendation on Blu-ray Disc. Like fellow indie Feast before it, there is an air of freshness despite no attempt by the filmmakers to bend the established genre. Rather than reinvent the wheel, director Toby Wilkins and his crew have polished it with sound writing, digital photography, authentic acting and immersive audio to remind us a smart and relevant genre film does not need to feed off a monstrous ego-driven budget.
– Dan Bradley
Follow Splinter director Toby Wilkin’s musings and Splinter-related news at his blog