Director Toby Wilkins' debut feature Splinter is a fast-paced, well-crafted bit of sci-fi horror with plenty of gore and thrills to keep audiences amped up and on-edge for much of its tight 85-minute running time. The title of Wilkins' film refers to the delivery method employed by its resident monster, a parasite that shoots splinters at its victims to infect them. All tangled limbs, snarling teeth, and contorted torso, the creature leaps, slithers, and growls with ferocious determination, and seems a descendent of John Carpenter's mutating menace in his remake of The Thing. While the monster's exact nature and cause are never fully explained, it hardly matters, because Wilkins, along with screenwriters Ian Shorr and Kai Barry, and a tight-knit, compelling cast keep us hooked, right out of the gate.
Wilkins posits Splinter's horrors in the backwoods of the American heartland where likeable couple -- bookish Seth (Paulo Costanzo) and outdoorsy Polly (Jill Wagner) find themselves on a camping trip with a broken tent. They ditch the camping idea, and set out in search of a motel to spend the night. En route, the two are ambushed by gun-wielding fugitive Dennis (Shea Whigham) and his strung-out girlfriend Lacey (Rachel Kerbs). The criminals hijack Seth, Polly, and their truck, and, driving on, pull over at the most unfortunate of gas stations. The creature has taken root here, having already "absorbed" both a dog and a hapless attendant, and now springs into action against the bewildered gang which retreats into the gas station's convenience store. Much of Splinter's action takes place here, behind the windows, aisles, and even the freezers of the store, as Seth and Polly form an uneasy alliance with Dennis, who's left sans girlfriend after Lacey meets a grisly fate, and together they try to outwit the primal terror.
With its walled-in, almost claustrophobic setting, Splinter echoes Night of the Living Dead, of course, and Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist. Probably to offset his limited effects budget, Wilkins overloads his film with nervous, swishing close-ups, tight framings, and jittery cuts, the effect of which is disorienting at its worst, pulling us out of an otherwise absorbing narrative. He and his screenwriters make resourceful use of their setting, however, from the surveillance cameras, items on the shelves (lighter fluid, firecrackers, bags of ice -- lots of each), and the storage area behind the freezers, where the trio finds temporary haven, and where Seth performs a life-saving impromptu amputation on Dennis. The amputation is not for the weak of stomach, mind you, but it scores handily in earning our respect and sympathy for this gutsy, unlikely brand of characters. As Dennis, Whighham adds nuance and redemptive chutzpah to what is, at base, just another hardened criminal on the lam. In the end, we root for him, and also for Seth, who proves his mettle with on-the-fly intelligence, and Polly, who isn't just a pretty face here, but a quick-thinking action heroine every bit as hard-nosed as Dennis.
Splinter is a nifty example of the horror-movie as thrill ride. Plenty of them come and go, especially at this time of year, and most just meld together as by-the-numbers scream-fests with fill-in-the-blank monsters and stalkers. If luck holds, the low-budget, low profile Splinter will be spared the back bins of genre oblivion. It's too well-made and far too much fun not to deserve a place in the cult horror-movie canon.
Get the tweezers.