The DNA mashup in the fright flick "Splice" is more of a sausage grinder than the delicate conjoining the title implies. Kind of a "let's mix together human genetic stuff and a bunch of animal building blocks and see what sort of breakfast links pop out."
So, too, director Vincenzo Natali's Frankenstein tale is pure potluck — a pinch of braininess, a bit of gothic terror, a morsel of gross-out horror, a touch of kinky sex fantasy.
The parts sometimes don't fit that gracefully. Yet the movie's occasional bolts-in-the-neck crudeness is offset by its wicked humor, really cool effects and a fair number of genuine scares as the laboratory offspring of two cocky scientists grows from cute little freak to sensuous monster.
Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley bring more weight to these research whizzes than their rather superficially drawn characters merit in the screenplay Natali (whose films include the cult sci-fi thrillers "Cube" and "Cypher") wrote with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor.
Brody's Clive Nicoli and Polley's Elsa Kast are possibly the dumbest super-geniuses ever on screen, a rock-star romantic and professional couple who apparently skipped Medical Ethics 101 on their way to the top of the recombinant DNA field.
Clive and Elsa's hybrid creations — two writhing blobs of flesh named Fred and Ginger, formed from the DNA of different animals — hold enormous promise of medical breakthroughs for the pharmaceutical giant that funds the research.
But when the company puts the brakes on the next step — adding human DNA to the recipe — Elsa and Clive move ahead in secret.
They create Dren, a creature that begins fairly formless but morphs into more of a human shape as she ages. True to the science-fiction cliche of lightning-fast growth (after all, how scary would "Alien" have been if Sigourney Weaver spent the whole movie chasing a beastie the size of a capuchin monkey?), Dren quickly sprouts to an adult-sized femme fatale (Delphine Chaneac).
While Clive and Elsa did not think through the ramifications of creating Dren in the first place, these two brainiacs come down with an epic case of the stupids now that their little girl-thing is big enough to use her enhanced strength, agility and lord knows what other hidden powers to really cause havoc.
Dren is the sort of creature that needs the right environment — say, a steel-walled observation chamber — to play well with others. Instead, Elsa and Clive move her out to the country, shutting her up in a rickety barn, under the sound scientific judgment that Yale locks and brittle clapboards are the best things to contain your dangerous new lifeform.
Natali composes some truly striking images centered around Dren, who's bald, has a tail and birdlike lower legs, a fierce intellect and fiercer appetites, as well as some serious mommy-and-daddy issues. The filmmakers seamlessly graft computer imagery onto Chaneac's shapely real parts to fashion Dren's nonhuman appendages and features.
The story throws in traces of lame, ill-defined family backstory to explain Elsa's reluctance to have a real child with Clive, as well as to account for Dren's behavioral instability. The idea that she's a stew of unnaturally fused genetic material apparently wasn't reason enough.
Elsa and Clive are not the best parental figures for poor Dren, their own attitudes and conduct toward their creation shifting abruptly, often without clear cause.
Through some shocking cruelty and base behavior by Elsa and Clive, Natali aims to show purebred humans as potentially monstrous creatures themselves. Yeah, big surprise there, and the movie presents it about as delicately as Victor Frankenstein's brute might have handled an assignment to dust the castle crystal.
The twists become more obvious and ham-fisted as "Splice" progresses, and while the movie maintains its creepiness right to the end, its gradual devolution into standard horror territory undermines this science project gone wrong.
"Splice," a Warner Bros. release, is rated R for disturbing elements including strong sexuality, nudity, sci-fi violence and language. Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.