Horror of horrors: Did the wrong kind of people like 'Splice'?
Judging from the drubbing that "Splice" took at the box office over the weekend, with the film making a woeful $7.3 million, it's pretty obvious that the kiss of death for a horror film is to get a huge sheaf of valentines from the nation's movie critics.
Rank and file moviegoers loathed the film, hating it so much that it earned a lowly D from CinemaScore, which compiles the reaction from the regular folks who see films on their opening night of release.
But the critics adored the picture. In fact, "Splice" earned a 74 fresh grade from Rotten Tomatoes, which is the same grade that critics gave "Iron Man 2," arguably the best-reviewed major release of the summer. Everywhere I looked, the film was getting Big Love from a top critic, whether it was Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert or the Philadelphia Inquirer's Carrie Rickey, not to mention glowing reviews from NPR, Salon.com, Time magazine and my paper.
The Detroit News' Tom Long called the film "daring, disturbing and deliciously twisted," while the N.Y. Times' A.O.Scott, reviewing it for At the Movies, said it was "disarmingly insightful about the psychology of its characters."
Being disarmingly insightful is all well and good, but having seen the film myself, I can tell you why most moviegoers hated the movie. Its stars, Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody, play a pair of bio-engineers who decide that's it's a perfectly good idea to clone a new organism out of the DNA from different animals, even though ANYONE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD KNOW THAT THIS IS A LAME-BRAINED IDEA THAT IS SURE TO SPELL DISASTER.
Of course, that's the DNA of horror movies -- people are always involved in some hare-brained scheme that's going to cause them a world of hurt. But Brody and Polley's characters are so singularly unlikable that its no surprise that most audiences were unwilling to root for them after they got in over their heads. Critics, of course, rarely worry about whether the audience has any emotional affinity for the lead characters in a story. They're much more interested in ideas, filmmaking style and the general intellectual frisson of it all.
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis gave away the game in her review, where she dropped the name of one cerebral filmmaker after another, comparing "Splice" to David Cronenberg's "The Fly," seeing affinities to the work of David Lynch and Ridley Scott's "Alien" and spotting allusions to James Whale's "Bride of Frankenstein." For Dargis, it was a delight to see an intelligent film that "explores chewy issues like bioethics, abortion, corporate-sponsored science, commitment problems between lovers and even Freudian-worthy family dynamics."
But for real moviegoers, all those chewy issues didn't amount to a hill of beans when it turned out that you were trapped in a movie with two nutty bioethicists who seemed far more clueless than the guys who sold you the bag of popcorn that you brought into the theater.
Photo: Sarah Polley, left, and Adrien Brody in a scene from "Splice." Credit: Warner Bros.