From time to time over the years I've used the phrase "feature-length Twilight Zone episode" to describe a film, and it's almost never meant as a compliment. More like the flick at hand had a very cool concept but not enough roughage to fill an entire three-act structure, which leaves the very cool concept bouncing around inside a box that's just too big. However, in the case of Toby Wilkins' Splinter, I can not only use "feature-length Twilight Zone episode" as a compliment, but I can do it one better. It's actually more like a high-end feature-length version of The Outer Limits, combined with a fond enthusiasm for creative gore and populated by a trio of characters who are not only worth rooting for, but actually interesting. Like, in between all the mayhem, you're actually interested in the talky bits! It seems like such an obvious trick, so why do so few filmmakers manage to pull the trick off?
Stripped to its basics (and without spoiling anything), Splinter is about three young adults who find themselves trapped inside of an isolated convenience store while a horrific biological plague rages just outside. And I'm not talking about the kind of plague that makes you sick and expire quickly. No, this is some sort of brand-new infectious lunacy that turns human beings into contorted lumps of broken bone while nasty little splinters poke out of every pore. It touches you, you're dead. Simple.
Tossed into this unpleasant situation are a young biologist, his smart 'n' pretty girlfriend, and a new "friend" who has a bad attitude and carries a gun. The actors are Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner, and Shea Whigham (respectively) and the actors each deliver fine work on their own, but also inject some much-welcome color and energy once they're working in full-bore ensemble mode. And since the director got his start as a visual effects designer, it's only logical that his monsters receive high billing, and Wilkins does a solid job of creating a creature through numerous cinematic tools: Not just practical effects and some digital trickery, but stuff like music, editing, and sound design. If the goal was to create a nasty threat that will make audience members squeal "Don't touch it!" then I'd say the director and his team have done a fine job.
Screenwriters Kai Barry and Ian Shor have constructed a simple and basic enough horror tale, but like I always say: If you're going to cover old ground, do it with just a dash or two of your own creativity. Wilkins accomplishes that by delivering a crisp pace, some really cool FX work, and a surprisingly impressive visual package. The writers cover their end by creating a three-character dynamic that adds just a few new spices to a potentially familiar stew. (Watch as each of the males has his own time to shine, and watch how the gal goes from coward to follower to scrapper.) Also interesting is the way in which the triangular dynamic keeps switching as the threat widens and how each character manages to help / hinder the other one at key moments. Basically, if you don't care about the three survivors (and if they're not given interesting things to do), then all you have is a boring movie with a cool monster. Splinter works exceedingly well on both sides of the fence.
In many ways Splinter feels like a small but appropriate companion piece to Frank Darabont's The Mist. Both have similar stories, both focus as much on the inner stresses created by humans as on the outer horrors created by monsters, and both are more than happy to dole out the nasty stuff in appropriate doses. (To my fellow gorehounds, I can say: This flick doesn't disappoint.) If I have one major complaint about Splinter, it's that the end credits show up just as I was gearing up for one or two additional jolts. But saying "I hoped it was a bit longer" is more of a compliment than a criticism, and I'm hoping Wilkins has another chance to go back and explore this wonderfully icky Splinter-plague monster-virus. I mean, there's nothing all that new about the plot of Splinter, but I don't think I've ever seen a monster that works quite like this one. And I'd like to see some more.