By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Vincenzo Natali's Splice puts the Frankenstein myth into modern terms; why stitch together parts when you can genetically create a whole? A whole what? That's the question this creepy-sexy horror movie wraps your head around.
Clive (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are laid-back biochemists and lovers, cloning two lumpy slugs that secrete enzymes to bolster livestock feed. Hey, it's a living. The job also gives Elsa a chance to experiment with human DNA in the creatures' genes, perhaps inventing a cure for cancer.
Before you can scream "It's aliiiiive!" the genetic hybrid starts growing, like a fetus outside its womb. Then the ingenious subtext of Splice's screenplay kicks in. This is a sci-fi horror movie about raising children and the Frankenstein way they can turn on you.
Elsa immediately feels maternal, while Clive nervously wishes the test results were wrong. They name the creature Dren ("nerd" spelled backward) and go through the same trials of first feedings, steps and rebellion that all parents do. Except their kids probably don't have raptor legs, a tail, a cleft skull and feline eyes.
Natali offers a fine balance of humor and dread in these early scenes, using CGI, puppets and 8-year-old Abigail Chu as Dren, creating a jaw-dropping creature. Not a monster since Dren is grotesquely cute as a button — even when she runs away from home to chase and munch a bunny rabbit.
Then Dren (now played by Delphine Chanéac) accelerates into her teen years, and we know how much trouble that can be.
The remainder of Splice's plot should only be described as the worst of raising a daughter who's literally and sexually sprouting her wings.
This is a visually arresting movie, dominated by sterile lab whites and blues and cagey camera placements. Natali has much more material than merely horror to juggle here, and he does it with a voyeur style that David Cronenberg would appreciate. The moral issues of playing God with science are vital until the film's final "a-ha" image, and Clive's conflicted feelings about Dren are devastating. Splice is much smarter than the average horror flick but no less gratuitously drenched in blood and sex.
The performances are uncommonly good for the genre, with Brody and Polley inspired to etch a devoted romance and partnership upset by a new arrival. The secrets and lies Clive and Elsa tell each other may sound familiar to couples, despite the terrifying context.
Behind the shocks is a filmmaker who trusts a solid story enough to push it farther and higher than expected. Natali obviously has as much fun with the parenting parallels as the special effects making them weird. It's a refreshing change from run-of-the-kill horror. Nothing in Splice feels done merely for the moment — it's to creep you out later.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.