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<i>Splice</i>: Ugliness and Beauty in One Cringe-Worthy Package

Is genetic engineering rigidly regulated because of what we're worried the modified creatures will do to us, or what we'll do to the creatures? That may be the question Cube director Vincenzo Natali asks in his new film, Splice. Or he may simply be asking the question, "What if two kind of messed-up geneticists went off the reservation?" Because that's what happens in this film, and the situation they've created for themselves spirals out of control in a way that is frightening, sad and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. But while some of the laughter comes from legitimately humorous moments, much of it comes from shock, as the film toes the line in several scenes then calmly strides right over it. Depending on how squeamish you are, the laughter may also manifest itself as squirming uncomfortably in your seat, and your feelings about the movie will have everything to do with whether or not that sounds like fun to you.

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play Clive and Elsa, and since their names are references to the stars of The Bride of Frankenstein, you know this will not end well. A co-habitating pair of hotshot mad scientists, the couple recently made the cover of Wired for their skills in creating hybrid creatures for a major pharmaceutical company. They dress like hipster rock stars (Clive wears a different slogan T-shirt every day), and their apartment has designer toys of anthropomorphic animals in every room which are eerily similar to the monsters they make. Their latest creations are a pair of featureless, wormlike globs who are apparently chock-full of proteins that Big Pharma is desperate for, but when they pitch human-animal hybrids to the boss, so they can go after big game like cancer and Alzheimer's, they're shot down. High on their genius, they go ahead and do it anyway, saying with each step that they just want to see if they can. But once their naked, squirrel-chicken hybrid is born, it gets a lot more difficult to terminate the experiment.

The hybrid, an amphibian, grows fast, and Elsa forms a motherly bond with it, dressing it in children's clothes as it becomes more and more human and ridiculously naming it "Dren" (the reverse of NERD, the har-har acronym of their lab). The illegality of what they've done, while present, is nearly forgotten in the stress of parenting: trying to feed Dren, diagnose her illnesses and clean up her vomit. Aside from (because of?) Clive's occasional panic attacks, it's a portrait of domesticity, which gets more complicated as Dren grows rapidly to physical maturity. Played by French actress Delphine Chanéac, the teenage Dren is still childlike in many ways and speaks only in trills, but she's also highly intelligent, wickedly defiant and way too interested in her "father" Clive, especially after she sees him and Elsa having sex. The film spirals into a nightmare from there, as we find out that their other lab work is suffering, Elsa is mentally troubled by trauma from her childhood and Clive is unsuccessfully trying to keep things from getting weird with Dren. And boy, do things get weird. And then they get weirder. Clothes (and blood) are shed, and the laugh- and/or squirm-inducing scenes mentioned earlier come fast and furious.

The performances by Brody and Polley are solid, and Chaneac is both adorable and seductive as the teenage Dren, but the boundary-pushing story and the special effects are the movie's biggest strengths. The effects in particular should be commended -- the two wormlike creatures are deceptively simple, but completely believable, and the design of the newborn Dren is disturbing in its blending of human and inhuman qualities. The child and teen versions of Dren are masterpieces of computer effects, with her eight fingers, ungulated legs, widely spaced eyes and prehensile tail with stinger as close to lifelike as I've ever seen in a film. The realism makes what happens in the movie all the more disconcerting, but the worst crime a movie can commit is to not make you feel anything. Splice is certainly not guilty of that; in fact, it makes you feel a lot more than your standard horror movie.... even when you might wish otherwise.

Did you see Splice? Let us know what you thought, then check out our guide to the most disastrous scientific experiments in film!

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