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‘Splinter’ digs in with steady scares

The feature debut from British writer-director Toby Wilkins is a truly inspired mix of stripped-down, 1970s-style scares and vivid special effects.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The retro horror movie “Splinter” begins with a scrawny bumpkin lounging in a cheap lawn chair outside a deadly quiet gas station in the Oklahoma woods. He wears a trucker hat emblazoned with the words “I (Heart) Bikinis.”

You know this guy will be a goner in scant minutes, but nothing can prepare you for who — or what? — attacks him.

The feature debut from British writer-director Toby Wilkins is a truly inspired mix of stripped-down, 1970s-style scares and vivid special effects. It has so many gnarly, oh-my-God-did-that-just-happen? moments, your jaw will hurt from hitting the floor so often.

The premise may seem old-school and familiar, but it’s the execution that will grab you. Boyfriend and girlfriend Seth (Paulo Costanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner from those Lincoln-Mercury commercials) are heading for a weekend camping trip to enjoy a little “anniversary sex under the stars,” as she puts it.

Naturally, everything goes wrong. First, they struggle with the tent and end up breaking the thing. Once they decide to give in and look for a motel, they get carjacked and held hostage by escaped convict Dennis (Shea Whigham) and his jonesing, junkie girlfriend, Lacey (Rachel Kerbs). Then they hit some kind of animal on a back road and have to change a flat tire. It’s only when they all stop at a gas station that they begin to realize the creature they encountered is far more dangerous than they ever could have imagined.

Wilkins makes expert use of silence and steady pacing to build suspense, but also well-placed sound effects to jolt us. Even though “Splinter” reaches back aesthetically, it is so refreshing to see a horror movie that isn’t overedited, isn’t smothered in screechy noises and musical cues telling you when to be scared. One of the most effective scenes of all features Seth and Polly, holed up inside the gas station that becomes their fortress, trying to reach outside for help using nothing but wire hangers, duct tape and their shaky nerves. The buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead provides the subtly nagging soundtrack. Wilkins knows how to hold a shot — and we all hold our breath.

And the thing that’s out there — a sort of spiky, infectious ferret that turns its victims into zombie porcupine Frankensteins — is a twisted force to behold. Oh, and it mutates, thriving on its own blood (and the blood of others) to become something new and even more dangerous. And did we mention that pieces of its victims can break off and walk around on their own? A hand, a severed torso, etc.

Seth, who is conveniently studying for his Ph.D. in biology, becomes so fascinated by this thing that he forgets to be frightened — ignores the fact that bloody, mangled body bits are flinging themselves against the convenience store’s glass door with persistent thumps.

“It’s metabolizing,” he observes with awe. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

He’s right. And neither have we.