Sarah Polley Upends the Stereotypical Mad-Scientist Role in the Mutant Parable 'Splice'

The best horror movies have an underlying agenda that has little to do with jump scares, minor chords, and stage blood. The monster shows that rise above the trappings of their cheap-to-make, easy-to-sell genre are the ones that challenge the status quo—or at least our perception of it. Films like Frankenstein, Night of the Living Dead, and The Exorcist succeeded and became indelible parts of our cultural landscape because they addressed the deep-seated social anxieties of their time. Even the much-maligned "torture porn" sub-genre told us something about ourselves, whether we wanted to hear it or not; the Saw and Hostel franchises rose to popularity during a time when we were trying to decide if torture was really such a bad thing after all, so long as it made us feel a little safer.

The most profoundly unsettling horror films can work their sick magic even as major theatrical distributors pointedly refuse to acknowledge their existence. Theater chains wouldn't touch The Human Centipede with a bargepole, but that doesn't mean you have to wait for it to hit DVD; thanks to IFC and video-on-demand services, you can measure your intestinal fortitude in the privacy of your own home whenever the mood strikes you.

What does The Human Centipede have to do with Splice, you ask? More than you'd think. Middle America's hand-wringing and belly-aching over a little creative connectivity make it all the more astonishing that Vincenzo Natali's wonderfully perverse creature feature managed to score a wide release. Splice is easily more transgressive than the now-infamous Centipede, albeit in a manner that is infinitely more conducive to popcorn consumption. Splice gives us, whether implied or overt, themes of child abuse, abortion, infanticide, incest, and rape, all sandwiched between Marmaduke and Toy Story 3 at your local multiplex. It starts out as a cautionary tale about the dangers of overstepping scientific boundaries, but it gradually mutates into a sick little parable about the perversions of the modern nuclear family. By the time the end credits roll, Frankenstein has morphed into Mommie Dearest, by way of Rosemary's Baby and Eraserhead.

The timing for Splice's release couldn't be better, coming on the heels of Craig Venter's landmark development of a synthetic, self-replicating life-form. (Incidentally, Splice was originally inspired 12 years ago by the Vacanti mouse, the sad little creature with a human ear growing out of its back.) Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley star as Clive and Elsa, a pair of post-modern geneticists who have engineered a new species in the form of Fred and Ginger, a couple of comically icky creatures who are potential goldmines of designer genes and bankable chemical compounds. Clive and Elsa want to move to the next stage of their experimentation: the inclusion of human DNA into the mix. Their corporate handlers, though, are more concerned with monetizing Fred and Ginger. Like any self-respecting mad scientists, Clive and Elsa continue screwing with Mother Nature on the down-low, and the result is Dren—a bizarre creature with a hodgepodge of human and animal characteristics who quickly becomes a surrogate daughter to Elsa. Dren's relationship with Clive is more protean, and is the catalyst for several of the film's most twisted twists.

Clive's radical actions drive the story forward, but the focus of the film is Dren's ever-changing relationship with Elsa. Portrayed brilliantly by Polley, Elsa is the last person on the planet who should be in the life-giving role. She doesn't want a normal child (Clive does), but she can't resist the maternal instincts that kick in when Dren evolves into something that closely resembles a human child. Unfortunately, Elsa's vision of motherhood leaves much to be desired; a victim of child abuse herself, she treats Dren the way her own mentally disturbed mother treated her. And since Dren's life cycle is dramatically compressed, Elsa barely has time to screw her up as a child before she evolves into a dangerous creature who threatens her "mother" on a multitude of levels. Power struggles ensue, and inevitably go south in ways that might test the boundaries of what mainstream audiences will tolerate.

Brody gets top billing, but Polley is the film's star. Splice is a deeply feminine take on the mad-scientist trope, and Polley's performance as the mercurial Elsa is stunning. In turns sympathetic and sinister, Polley offers a chilling take on the mother-as-monster scenario that drove the "hagsploitation" films of the '60s and '70s. We understand the motives behind her actions, which makes them all the more disturbing. It's also a great deal of fun to get to watch a woman go over-the-top crazy in a role that has been almost universally reserved for men; Polley gives Peter Cushing a run for his mad-scientist money.

Some have criticized the film's over-the-top descent into perversion as shock for the sake of shock, but there's more to it than that. Splice's controversial conclusion pushes the film into some very uncomfortable territory, and crosses lines that are considered sacrosanct in mainstream horror. In other words, Splice does exactly what a good horror film should do.