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Hybrid Gone Awry

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

If the idea of human-animal hybrids seemed like a good idea to you, filmmaker Vincenzo Natali’s (Nothing, Cypher, Cube) latest film, Splice hopes to convince you of the unsoundness of that idea.

Splice focuses on genetic researchers and romantic partners, Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), equal parts hubristic, naïve, and arrogant, who, apparently having failed their class in bioethics or slept through their classes on literature and film, decide to create a human-animal hybrid. Everything that can go wrong, goes wrong.

Clive and Elsa’s latest hybrid experiment, “Fred,” the male companion for “Ginger,” their earlier experiment, succeeds. Fred and Ginger look like giant, mobile tongues with vestigial appendages. Their blood and tissue promises to provide the chemical compounds necessary for new medicines and treatments. Clive and Elsa (more Elsa than Clive, who wants to start a traditional family) argue for taking their experiments to the next logical step, human-animal hybrids. The two people involved in funding their experiments, William Barlow (David Hewlett), their supervisor, and Joan Chorot (Simona Maicanescu), a pharmaceutical company executive, reject their arguments.

Despite the ethical issues and the potential dangers involved, Clive and Elsa pursue the experiment, initially expecting a non-viable fetus. When the rapidly growing fetus survives outside an artificial womb, a bird-like creature with a humanoid face and a stinger-equipped tail emerges. Clive wants to destroy it, Elsa wants to mother it. The “it” grows up within days into an adult-sized female, Dren (Delphine Chanéac), incapable of human speech, communicating in bird-like trills.

Although Splice eventually devolves into monster-on-the-loose B-movie territory — a third act that’s as disappointing as it is predictable — Natali and his co-writers, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor, manage to craft a surprisingly engaging, provocative film. Natali dares to take his characters, Clive, Elsa, and Dren, to the kind of dimensionality we rarely see in mainstream horror films. Elsa’s back story feels slightly contrived, not to mention convenient, but it adequately influences her character arc.

Natali makes up for a limited budget with skills behind the camera, continually finding visual interest even in the most mundane, drab settings, opening cheekily with Fred’s birth from “his” POV as Clive an Elsa, acting like anxious parents, look on. It helps Natali’s cause that Dren, as brought to life by makeup effects artists Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero (with an able assist from CG effects houses), is both beautiful and repulsive.

It’s Dren that moviegoers will remember most, but credit to Natali for taking Guillermo del Toro’s sage advice to cast “up,” to find the best actors, not just the best genre actors, for Splice. He found them in Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, who both give intense, persuasive performances as Clive and Elsa, respectively. French actress Delphine Chanéac also impresses as Dren, who has to use facial expressions and body language to communicate.

Unfortunately, by the time the third act comes around, Natali gives up the beautiful part and emphasizes Dren’s repulsiveness and dangerous behavior. Uninspired horror clichés, including an egregiously ill-conceived, Fly-inspired, sequel-ready ending, take over the banal third act.

Average horror fans might not care, but horror fans that see the potential in the genre to do more than simply deliver cheap thrills and kills will be disappointed in the final result.