Exactly what a B-movie should be, Toby Wilkins’s resourceful Splinter uses its limited means to its advantage, the film so focused on keeping terror at a fever pitch that it has scant time for needless exposition or elaborate narrative complications. Ian Shorr and Kai Barry’s story is a lean piece of raw meat that swiftly establishes character dynamics before getting to the taut, terrifying good stuff. Early scenes curtly lay out the dominant-passive rapport between Seth (Paulo Costanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner, late of Lincoln-Mercury car commercials), though dawning madness soon becomes the main focus once the two—having bailed on their anniversary camping trip in rural Oklahoma—are abducted by outlaw Dennis (Shea Whigham) and his meth-addicted girlfriend Lacey (Rachel Kerbs). After a brief run-in with suspicious roadkill, the foursome’s SUV begins to fail, forcing them to stop at a forest-surrounded gas station where a porcupine-like beast has, earlier that day, infected the attendant with some sort of gruesome, prickly parasite that animates its dead human hosts into hungry, broken-limbed monstrosities.
Once Lacy is mutated into a bloody blob of off-angle limbs, the remaining three hole up inside the convenience store, initiating a how-to-escape scenario that Wilkins stages with consistent logic and wiry energy, his direction generating muscular anxiety from horrors unseen. The central creature is a thing not of insubstantial CG trickery but of tangible prosthetics craftsmanship that, in its head-smacking-against-glass physicality, recalls the groundbreaking aliens of John Carpenter’s The Thing. And if the director’s use of shaky handheld close-ups is motivated by a desire to avoid providing a clear-cut look at his (impressive, if low-budget) effects work, it’s a decision that nonetheless works in favor of the film’s edgy, guttural immediacy.
Full of ominous shots of the lush woods and buzzing bugs flying near fluorescent lights, Splinter casts its threat as a malevolent, organic eco-nightmare whose prime tactic is bodily incursion and takeover. Any attempts to prey off of contemporary environmental fears, however, are secondary to brutal, nasty, no-nonsense monster movie horror, which the shrewd Wilkins only very occasionally punctuates with tension-relieving humor, none better than when Polly comforts one less-fortunate companion with, “It’s okay, we’re cutting your arm off!”