06 June 2010 @ 12:30 pm
KDD on Splice  


Director Vincenzo Natali’s Splice is unequivocally one of the most disturbing films to grace the cineplex this year. And that’s fine. It’s good to shake things up and disturb the peace of the standard guns, gore and explosion-fueled R rated film. Splice is a sci-fi horror film that combines so many contemporary issues that it will make your head spin watching it. The film focuses on a couple of star scientists -- Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive ( Adrien Brody) – who are out to discover the protein that will cure human disease, but in the process they decide to create a human/animal hybrid who they raise like their own child. Through the story of Elsa, Clive, their bizarre child-monster Dren, and their connection to private pharmaceutical interests, the film manages to combine a whole mess of hot topics such as abortion, biotechnology, the reproductive industry, genetic research, cloning, big pharma’s role in late capitalism, maternity, sexuality/gender and so much more into one disturbingly effective film. The film not only splices together one disturbing and button-pushing monster child, but it splices together a ton of issues at the forefront of 21st century economics and politics while also providing one hell of a disturbing female body horror film.

Certainly the themes explored in Splice are no strangers to sci-fi movies, but what makes Splice so effective (like in the films of David Cronenberg) is its merging of science with the real flesh of humans. The movie manages to bring its science-fiction material into the flesh, blood, and emotional complexities of the human body, and that is what ultimately delivers the horror of the film. The human body and the human species are scary things. While their flesh makes humans both vulnerable and corrupt, their intellect and drive for power and success make them dangerous. There is no denying that Elsa and Clive are human. One of the things that makes the movie so disturbing is how “normal” Elsa and Clive seem to be and how their “normal” lives are merged with horror. They communicate in the language and exhibit the dynamics of “normal” couples going through the “having children” trajectory. As they create little abominable hybrid creatures in the laboratory, they exhibit all the traits of couples who are trying to get pregnant and then give birth to their baby. The only difference is that Clive and Elsa create babies outside of the human body. These aren’t babies gestating in the warm comforting environment of the female body, they are bizarre hybrids created entirely outside of the body. Elsa and Clive’s final monstrous “creation” is the human/animal hybrid Dren who they raise as their own child.



All the while, as Elsa and Clive give birth to these scientific experiments, they have the kind of interactions ordinary couples have. They banter back and forth about their apartment, about moving to a bigger place to eventually have “real” children, and they discuss Elsa’s seemingly harmless apprehensions about having babies of her own. By placing so much emphasis on the ordinary “human” characteristics of Elsa and Clive and their relation to each other, the movie creates a tension between our perspective of the two protagonists as “human” and our vision of them in a monstrous situation of their own creation. As we watch these two humans struggle with the monster of their own creation, the audience is pummeled with questions of morality and responsibility. Over and over again, as they push biotechnological experiments to the edge, Clive and Elsa question the “responsible” thing to do, but over and over again they cave into their own human compulsions which muddle the picture. Is it responsible to “kill” (e.g. abort) a monster before it is born, or is it responsible to let a living thing live (even if it is a monster)?

There are no easy answers in this movie because, as in the best of horror movies, the line between what is monster and what is human is murky. There are many monsters in Splice, and monster-child Dren isn’t necessarily the biggest one. In fact, like in the Frankenstein narratives, Dren only exists because she is created by humans. She is a freak created by freaks. Dren is the manifestation of other monsters. The monster of science and biotechnology used for profit. The monster of sexual repression. The monster of genetic history. The monster of the cycle of abuse. And most prominently, the monster of birth itself. The film opens with a birth scene where we as the audience are actually looking out at the proud parents – Clive and Elsa – as their “child” is born. While at first glance, it may seem like we are looking out through the eyes of the baby being born, really we are looking out from the perspective of the birth canal itself as if the vagina has eyes. Now, that’s scary! When the baby is actually delivered, what we see is a thick writhing overtly phallic hunk of flesh which the couple names Ginger to match its mate Fred who is housed in a laboratory incubator. So from the birth machine, the phallus is delivered, and neither one of them is particularly attractive at this point in the movie.

Nevertheless, the movie situates us inside the birth canal as the site of the horror. Indeed, it is Elsa’s fear of succumbing to her bodily maternal instinct and the act of displacing her female reproductive system onto science and technology that brings on the horror. In a Frankenstein attempt to procreate outside of her body, Elsa merges her genetic material with the genetic material of animals and creates her own monster child Dren. Interestingly, while the birth delivery system -- Elsa -- is markedly female, the creatures themselves are phallic. Even Dren, though sexed as female, is born looking like a penis with legs. Indeed, all the creatures in this movie are born looking like penises, and even the ones who are born female eventually lose their female sex and turn into males/penises (and become deadly). At one point in the film, Fred and Ginger have a violent fatal incident, when Ginger changes gender and the two phalluses attack each other in a bloody battle which splatters the pharmaceutical company’s economic sponsors with the gore and viscera of this experiment gone wrong. In one of the final scenes of the movie, Dren herself changes sex, and rapes and impregnates Elsa (her/his own mother and creator).

The fact that all the creatures eventually become male hones in on what drives the horror of this movie. It is Elsa’s fear of her own maternal body that creates the movie’s horror. She is so mortified by her own maternal body that the only way she can imagine becoming pregnant is by impregnating herself through her own abominable creation. The fact that all the creatures switch sex (are born penises and return to the penis) manipulates our sense of what he movie is saying. On the one hand, it is saying that the site of birth – the mother – is the horror, but on the other, it is saying that the phallus is the ultimate horror. In a way, the movie is having its cake and eating it too, or maybe it’s just saying that humans – male and female – are all fucked up.

In the meanwhile, let’s get back to Clive. Clive, a man solidly grounded in his penis, his body and his sense of right and wrong, is horrified when he discovers that Elsa has used her own DNA to create Dren. He is outraged at her moral irresponsibility. Cloning humans, especially yourself, is wrong! But then again, as a man solidly grounded in his penis, Clive is also intrigued by the fact that a piece of Elsa exists inside Dren’s rapidly growing sexualized female body. Clive is so intrigued that his bodily desire overpowers his sense of “responsibility,” and he tosses his morality aside and fucks Dren on the floor of a barn.

So in the middle of all this science fiction narrative involving cloning and biotechnology, the audience witnesses two extremely taboo sexual acts – a man having sex with his “monster daughter,” and then the monster child raping his/her own mother. Both acts are delivered quite graphically, and create immensely disturbing and uncomfortable scenes (so much so that a few people walked out of the movie during both scenes). We are witness to Dren’s naked body, exposed and sexualized, like we would never be witness to an actual “child’s” body on the screen. The sex scenes are incredibly tense because, on one level the audience is asked to accept them because they are “horror” scenes with a monster; Dren is not human so therefore the movie can expose her naked sexualized child-monster body for all to see. But on another level, so much has been invested in making Clive, Elsa and Dren human, that the audience cannot separate the monster from the human. Ultimately it is the human quality of these taboo acts, the fact that they are grounded in real human flesh and occur within very human relations, that delivers the horror. What can be more horrific than watching a father fucking his daughter and then the same child fucking his own mother, which also, in a way, is watching the mother fuck herself? Goodness gracious that’s some scary material.



What these scenes do is bring the age-old horror movie theme of sexual repression to the literal surface of the film. The movie begins with Elsa distancing her relationship to her body and her reproductive sexuality through science, but as her “primal” maternal instincts surface, the movie begins to shift. Elsa becomes less present at the laboratory, and more present in the horror of her own maternity. The movie opens with Elsa firmly grounded in the sterile environment of reproduction technology. The scenes in the lab are lit with a cool blue light, eliminating any sense of organic bodies. But as Elsa gives birth to Dren, and the machines of science literally begin to leak and Elsa immerses her arm into the birth canal, she no longer is able to maintain that safe clinical distance from her own body. The shift from scientist to mother occurs when Elsa takes off her protective mask and offers her bare hand to Dren. Flesh on flesh contact occurs; the boundaries are broken, and the horror begins to grow. Elsa moves from the clinical setting of the laboratory, to the dense woods of her childhood home and her sexual unconscious.



When Elsa moves Dren to her childhood home, the lighting of the film changes. We are no longer in the sterile environment of the scientific laboratory. We are in a place haunted by Elsa’s past and her body. The barn is dense with shadows and debris from the past -- old tools and antiquated equipment, a glowing orange light infusing everything with a living pulse, ladders leading into lofts, and a tank of murky water. It is in this location, when Elsa returns to the site of her body’s sexual growth, that she inscribes her own repressed sexuality onto Dren. Elsa gives Dren her secret childhood Barbie to hug (a sexualized female body which she was forbidden to play with as a child) and the transformation of Dren into a sexualized female begins. As Dren grows into a sexual body, Elsa dresses her up in a slinky black dress and paints her face with eyeliner and lipstick. The more sexualized Dren becomes, the less sexualized Elsa becomes. Early in the film Elsa wears sexy black clothes that fetishize her female body. When she moves Dren to the barn, Elsa slumps around in oversized sweaters and baggy pants that hide her body. As Dren becomes more sexualized (bringing Elsa’s repressed sexuality to the surface), the movie becomes more disturbing and uncomfortable (in a good way) by throwing taboos onto the surface and asking the audience to experienced them full frontal. Indeed, as Elsa displaces her own confused sexuality onto Dren by intentionally sexualizing her, we can say that Elsa unconsciously orchestrates the sex scene between Dren and Clive.

It is clear in these scenes that Elsa is the intended monster in the movie. She is the one who created Dren out of herself. Elsa gave birth to the monster inside her. In fact, Dren is at her most monstrous when she is confronted with the fact that she’s part of Elsa, that Elsa created her from her own genetic material. The monster inside Dren surfaces when she realizes how imprisoned she is by Elsa physically (in the barn), psychologically (by Elsa’s emotional history) and genetically (by Elsa’s DNA). Elsa is the 21st century Dr. Frankenstein who clones herself and makes a “monster” because she is so afraid of her own sexual/maternal body. When that monster discovers how it was created it is outraged.



But what does this all mean? We have a pharma company lurking in the background and which is represented by one single woman in a position of power. We have Clive who is both impotent yet also ruled by his penis and his flawed sense of morality. We have Elsa who orchestrates the horror in this movie, creates hybrid phalluses, including one that eventually fucks and impregnates her (with herself). We have monstrous creatures who resemble fetuses when they’re born and evoke badly deformed babies or the horror spectacle of late-term abortions as propagated by pro-lifers. We are given multiple moments that raise the abortion issue – whether it would have been better to kill Dren before she was born or let her live in her monstrous state. But ultimately we have Elsa.

In the final scene Elsa basically marries the pharmaceutical company. She signs over her body and her mind to science for profit. She stands next to the female CEO (a woman who always wears pants), and she is pregnant by the creature she created from herself and which will be used for corporate interests in the name of saving human lives. Elsa’s worlds are joined. The laboratory and her body have become one, and the phallus is removed from the picture. Elsa has become the real hybrid in the film. She is the one who has spliced herself with herself and in so doing has created one hell of a weird, creepy horror film.

As these two women stand side by side looking out of the window of the pharma company’s executive office, part of me wonders what the hell Vincenzo Natali is saying about women and maternity. Is he saying that maternity or not, women are no different than men? Just like the hybrid penis creatures in the movie, are women inherently born male? Are we better off getting rid of the phallus, or does the phallus exist in all of us and can never be eliminated even without a male body? Perhaps Natali is saying that gender doesn’t matter and that we’re all phalluses at the heart of things. How should my feminista-tendency address that perception? I don’t know. I can’t help but laughingly question what role Natali’s Italian maleness (and the influence of Catholicism) played on his vision. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. I was enthralled by the movie. It’s fusion of science-fiction with the female body and its unveiling of uncomfortable sexual taboos and repression won me over. The very fact that a movie like this is playing in theaters and throwing such issues as abortion, maternity, sexuality and biotechnology so confoundingly in the face of the mass audience certainly beats the other options at the multiplex right now. Splice is one hell of a splicing job.

Note: This movie was almost impossible to write about because there is SO MUCH going on in it that I barely scratched the surface. I focused on one area that was of particular interest to me, but there are so many other directions anyone could take with this movie.

Edit: After an exchange with a friend over at FB, I realize that one of the reasons this movie is so hard to write about is because it contains all the elements for political dissection -- abortion, biotechnology, cloning, corporate control of the body, etc -- but in the end it resists politicization. It ends up being much more pscychological than political. It also remains incredibly allusive. It throws all of these things at the audience and makes our heads spin and reel with them, but it offers no specific point-of-view. Instead it makes for an experiential film, where we experience all these things but are left on our own for interpretation. That makes it so much more interesting and fun!
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touching now: what the fuck?wuweibaby on June 6th, 2010 08:29 pm (UTC)
i'm not sure i'm going to be able to see this one.
i DO like things being shaken up, but there's an internal squick factor that i shouldn't ignore.
cobaltikacobaltika on June 6th, 2010 08:39 pm (UTC)
it was awesome! we saw it yesterday!

but i was glad we went to the bargain show.

usually we like serious foreign films, but sometimes a good American-made circus is just the thing for a hot summer afternoon. this did the trick!

great review, Kim!
touching now: arghwuweibaby on June 6th, 2010 08:47 pm (UTC)
really? it didn't creep you out?

the stills here do that to me. dunno. maybe i'll see it in the second-run theaters here in a couple of months.
cobaltikacobaltika on June 6th, 2010 09:03 pm (UTC)
it was a creepy, but it was a MOVIE! movies and books are allowed to take you to another world that you might not normally care to live in.
So What?                       Kim Dot Dammit Livekdotdammit on June 6th, 2010 11:27 pm (UTC)
Well the movie is not the traditional American horror film. It credits three countries -- Candada, France and USA, is directed by an Italian, and is co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, so that's probably also why you liked it. It has much more depth and it certainly looks a lot more arty than most American films. It's Art Horror!

I'm with you on the matinee fare. I went to it yesterday afternoon (when it was a cool 103 degrees outside), and it was the perfect movie for a matinee.
So What?                       Kim Dot Dammit Livekdotdammit on June 7th, 2010 02:02 am (UTC)
I just thought of a better way to state my point -- while the promotional machine behind the movie is very mainstream, the production values are art house, and certainly the content pushes what is acceptable by mainstream standards.
So What?                       Kim Dot Dammit Livekdotdammit on June 6th, 2010 11:23 pm (UTC)
You know, though, it's more of a traditional female body horror film than anything else -- think Demon Seed. While creepy, it's not scary, but it is definitely disturbing because it touches on what's scary in humans (who are the real monsters of the world).
booZymaticboozymatic on June 6th, 2010 10:14 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you did a review of this movie!!! I've been intrigued by it for months now, and have been wobbling back and forth between the interest and the so-so reviews I've seen up till now.

I think I'm going to catch it when it hits this area.
So What?                       Kim Dot Dammit Livekdotdammit on June 6th, 2010 11:29 pm (UTC)
Some reviewers really like it, but you have to be into this kind of thing. All my life, monster movies have been some of my favorites, and this is very much a traditional monster movie (where the humans are the real monsters) propelled into the 21st century. It's also classic female body horror which is my favorite sub-genre of horror films. It is a lot of fun, has a hell of a lot going on it it, looks great, and will leave you remembering it for days after watching it. I recommend it highly!
(Deleted comment)
So What?                       Kim Dot Dammit Livekdotdammit on June 6th, 2010 11:31 pm (UTC)
Total Freak Show. It's all about freaks. Did you ever read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn? Dren reminded me of the creatures in that book, except more sinister, and more sinister is good.
men_in_full: daniel lambertmen_in_full on June 7th, 2010 02:15 am (UTC)
What an interesting review. I am not sure I can emotionally watch this movie right now, but I like vintage Cronenberg (like Dead Ringers) and if this film evokes that, no wonder you liked it.

Re: the sexual fetishization of Dren. I thought it was weird in the trailer that her feet looked like she came with instant stiletto heels, but it makes sense now in light of your comments.
Turquoisettetourquoise on June 7th, 2010 03:49 am (UTC)
Yikes, a humdinger that one! Dren killed the pussy with her stinger, so mommy symbolically castrated her. There's nothing like it, brilliant!! Alien and Species and Island of Dr. Moreau and Frankenstein. Fucked UP.
So What?                       Kim Dot Dammit Livekdotdammit on June 7th, 2010 04:30 am (UTC)
Excellent call on the castration scene. Dang, I should have worked that into my review, especially since it doesn't work, and the stinger/penis grows back! Dren can't be castrated. It seems that it is genetically impossible! Also love the reference to Dr. Moreau. Splice is one FUCKED UP story, but it is also completely enthralling. On one level, I think that it should totally piss me off, but on another I'm completely seduced by it.
So What?                       Kim Dot Dammit Livekdotdammit on June 7th, 2010 04:25 am (UTC)
I was completely enthralled by the movie. It sucked me in from the moment it started and didn't let go for a moment. It is very evocative of early Cronenberg (The Brood especially), and it also evokes some of the best of female body/possession narratives.

I haven't seen any of the trailers for it, but that is an excellent call on the stiletto heels. I hadn't even noticed that, but you're right. She absolutely is born is sexually fetishized feet. Yet another fascinating layer of detail!
Randy Byers: thesigerrandy_byers on June 7th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
Fascinating review of a movie I probably couldn't stomach. However, I like the nods to Bride of Frankenstein in the names: Elsa [Lanchester] and [Colin] Clive. It sounds as though this movie reverses the gender-bender aspects of Bride, where two men create life without the help of a woman.
So What?                       Kim Dot Dammit Livekdotdammit on June 8th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
Good call on the nod to Bride of Frankenstein (one of my favorite movies, not surprisingly). :-)

The movie doesn't have that much in it that would be hard on the stomach, really. I think you could handle it.
Randy Byers: thesigerrandy_byers on June 8th, 2010 06:19 pm (UTC)
Hm. If you saw people walk out, I wonder if I might not be one of them! I wish I were better at handling horror movies, but I just can't seem to find the distance, especially when it comes to body horror.
So What?                       Kim Dot Dammit Livekdotdammit on June 8th, 2010 06:33 pm (UTC)
They walked out during the taboo sex scenes. How are you with taboo sex scenes? Ultimately the movie is much more psychological and the setting in the pharma lab is very sci-fi. It doesn't have that much outright horror. Much more fantasy, sci-fi and psychological horror. The people walked out due to the "uncomfortable" nature of the sex scenes but not because of anything graphically horrific.
Randy Byers: thesigerrandy_byers on June 8th, 2010 06:53 pm (UTC)
It's true that the science fiction aspect is part of why I'm really curious about this movie. Maybe I'll give it a shot, although I may wait until it comes out on DVD.
Movie Geek: leather pantsmarc_e_heuck on June 9th, 2010 12:40 pm (UTC)
I loved this movie. I was thinking about a lot of the ideas that you mention in this piece, and many more.

Elsa's character intrigues me because of the hints of parental abuse her character is given. (Particularly struck by the scene of the shabby bedroom with what looks like a piss pot, and the exchange "I thought she left things as they were?" "She did.") As such, her hesitance to have kids seemed to me the worry many abused children have - am I going to pass on the crazy gene? And as much as she would like to deny it, Elsa has it - one minute doting over Dren, the next taking away her pet, then trying to give it back, then castrating her, all in the name of "knowing what's best," just as her own mother denied her a Barbie doll. I was half expecting when Elsa saw the female drawings in the cabinet that it would be revealed that they were not a match to Dren's drawings of Clive, but in fact were Elsa's drawings of her own mom, driving home the blood bond and the psychosis now shared to three generations. And it found a nice new spin on the old psychological trope about how mothers supposedly grow to fear their daughters youth and beauty, as if "replacing" them, and even spinning that around into male Dren living out a Jim Morrison fantasy in the climax.

I thought a great deal about JURASSIC PARK in this movie, oddly enough, since both films involve the notion of spontaneous female to male conversion, and Dren's first reveal of her wings is very much like a frilled lizard attack. Oh what the hell, let's have a "dead" Dren and then a fire so we can do the "Phoenix from the ashes" metaphor! (Although technically, Dren is not buried where they are burning stuff)

It is also amusing that it was Joel Silver's prodding that made WB pick up this movie and give it such a wide release, considering that last year they collaborated on another horror film I enjoyed maybe too much, ORPHAN. Seems like somebody has some serious parenting issues. I am glad that, even though it tanked, a movie this challenging went out so wide in the middle of summer, so that folks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan would even get a crack at seeing it in a theatre instead of SyFy as once contemplated.

This could end up being my favorite movie of the year, or at least in my Top 13.
So What?                       Kim Dot Dammit Livekdotdammit on June 12th, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
Great comment and all things that I also noted -- the abuse, etc. I also was struck by the moment when Dren's portraits of Elsa are revealed. We are set up to expect monsters (revealing the true monster) but instead we see bald faced humanity (drawn by the 'monster').

I also really liked Orphan, another great female body horror movie, and I am also very pleased that this movie got such wide release. It certainly pushes mainstream film over the edge. And yes, it will definitely make my top ten. I like to represent genres on my list, and this will make the horror category. I can't see anything surpassing it.