The following is an excerpt from Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More by John Kenneth Muir.
Splice reaches all the way back to an obscure 1976 “science run amok” horror flick starring Rock Hudson and Barbara Carrera, titled Embryo. In that effort from director Ralph Nelson, a scientist named Paul Holliston (Hudson) reshaped a fourteen-week-old human fetus with “placental lactagen,” a special growth hormone.
What he created, in a matter of days, was a fully formed twenty-five-year-old woman, Carrera’s Victoria, who knew nothing of the world and therefore was never appropriately socialized. Holliston taught his creation to read the Bible, to play chess, and to otherwise entertain him, before eventually becoming his “daughter’s” lover, too. In Embryo, the amoral Victoria was driven to commit murder over a hormonal imbalance that caused her to age and wither at a highly accelerated rate.
Splice boasts remarkable similarities. Vincenzo Natali’s film involves two incredibly arrogant twenty-first-century genetic engineers, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody), who decide to introduce human DNA into their revolutionary experiments involving chimeras. And yes indeed, Elsa and Clive are named after the great actors who played the lead roles in the landmark 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein: Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive.
Working in secret for a big pharmaceutical corporation, Elsa and Clive create a not-quite-human creature called Dren (first Abigail Chu and then Delphine Chaneau), a female being that is part amphibious. Dren also boasts an accelerated life span, which means she will live, age, and die while Elsa and Clive can watch and take notes. She’s their living petri dish.
Like Embryo’s Victoria before her, Dren is lonely, confused, and unsocialized, and Elsa, especially at first, treats the creature has her own biological child. There are good reasons for this, as the film makes clear in the later sequences set on Elsa’s wintry and foreboding family farm. Specifically, Elsa used her own DNA to create the “human” part of Dren.
But unfortunately, this family faces a crisis. As an adolescent, Dren turns her burgeoning physical affections unexpectedly toward her “father,” Clive, much in the same fashion as occurred in Embryo.
Yet what makes Splice more than just a variation on an old tale like Embryo is its laserlike focus on the concept of Elsa and Clive not just as bad, mad scientists, necessarily, but as bad parents. Together, Elsa, Clive, and Dren form a family unit, yet the parents here don’t seem to take their familial responsibilities seriously. Dren wants to bond with the adults, and still they just consider her a “mistake” they made after, on a whim, noting, “What’s the worst that could happen?” when they decided to make a life.
Splice concerns those things that occur when irresponsibility conceiving a life is followed by a deeper moral wrong: irresponsibility in rearing that life. Elsa quickly proves to be a psychologically troubled, capricious mother figure, playing out her own personal family drama on this new and innocent creation. One scene finds Elsa cruelly and vindictively strapping Dren to a surgical table and slicing off a portion of her “alien” anatomy. It’s a genuinely disturbing moment from an emotional standpoint.. The first thing Elsa does is take off Dren’s clothes, an indication that the girl is not human to her, no more than a specimen. A mother’s “love” can be taken away just like that, apparently, when the maternal figure feels displeasure.
Then weak-willed Clive makes the ultimate physical and emotional betrayal and has sexual intercourse with Dren, an adolescent who considers him a father figure. At best, he’s weak. At worst, he’s monstrous. And that’s the key to understanding Splice and its modus operandi. The “monsters” here are Elsa and Clive, two arrogant, flippant, self-involved scientists/parents who, through their ill-considered actions, irreparably harm another individual, an innocent individual. Dren may be genetically different from her parents, but she is nonetheless a result of her biological nature, which they created, and her terrible upbringing, which they are also responsible for. Dren might be inhuman, but Elsa and Clive are inhumane.
Like Karloff’s monster in the 1930s, audiences feel tremendous sympathy for the Dren character. When she commits the equivalent of a rape at film’s end, when she is no longer quite the Dren we know and recognize, the horrid act may be all about instinct and the biological imperative of all living things to reproduce. Or it may be about the fact that she was emotionally and sexually violated by a man she trusted and loved. What did she learn from this act? And from Elsa’s cruel, heartless domination? Like parent, like child? Dren was abused, and now she is the abuser.
From the movie’s very first shot, in which the audiences gaze out of the birth canal at parents Clive and Elsa, Splice asks viewers to contextualize the film as a story about what it means to be a parent. It asks the viewer to weigh this couple’s behavior and ask some important moral questions about it. Is this another life, or is this just an experiment? Is this about another being’s sovereignty and rights, or is it about “what we can learn”? As parents, what are our responsibilities to new life? Although Clive and Elsa possess special talents vis-à-vis their creation of life, they aren’t out of the norm in how they see child rearing.
In Splice, the film mirrors the life of a parent, from a child’s conception through adolescence, but with two “bad” parents as surrogates and negative examples. When Dren is first born, Elsa and Clive lose a lot of sleep, have no time for intimacy, and worry about things like messy feeding times. And while taking care of their child around the clock, their work at the office suffers.
Anyone who has raised a baby knows how authentic these moments feel. Sleep deprivation. Frustration. Loneliness. But there is also great joy as your infant starts to become an individual with a real personality and takes amazing first steps into the larger world: speaking, relating, learning. These passages involving Dren’s growth and development in Splice are simply stellar, and deeply affecting in a very human, very intimate way.
But this is a horror film, of course, and something goes wrong. At some point, Elsa and Clive forsake their roles as parents, and when threatened by Dren’s rebellion in adolescence, they try to write her off as an “experiment.” They try to control her; rein her in, make her act in the fashion they desire.
At some point, children stop being cuddly and fun and start to become demanding, rebellious, and self-directed. A good parent allows that growth to happen responsibly, and a bad parent begins to act antagonistically and imperiously. Bad parents fail to recognize their children as individuals and not as extensions of their own desires. That’s what happens to Clive and Elsa. When they don’t like what Dren has done, they shout, “This experiment is over.” Like that’s the end of it. Like the life they created just never existed, never flourished, never interacted with them.
So while Splice is a view of arrogant, out-of-control, cutting-edge science and its practitioners, it is also a bracing view of arrogant, out-of-control bad parenting.
Horror Films FAQ explores a century of ghoulish and grand horror cinema, gazing at the different characters, situations, settings, and themes featured in the horror film, from final girls, monstrous bogeymen, giant monsters and vampires to the recent torture porn and found footage formats. The book remembers the J-Horror remake trend of the 2000s, and examines the oft-repeated slasher format popularized by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).
Visit the author’s blog.