What happens when your child rebels against you? That’s the subject at the emotional core of Splice, an unsettling and skillfully mounted psychodrama that has some of the flavor of 1970s body-horror (mainly Alien and early David Cronenberg) mixed up with a contemporary retelling of the Frankenstein story. The complexity of the question is notched up by the film’s science fiction premise, which has the husband-and-wife team of Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) working in secret to create a new life form that jumbles human DNA in what seems to be a nearly random combination with that of other species.

Their ostensible hope is to discover new proteins that can be used to fight disease in humans. That’s perhaps a worthy goal, but the nobility of their work is compromised by the fact that Elsa is using the experiment to satisfy her own peculiar emotional needs — essentially she wants children, but she’s not ready for children. But it’s a child she gets, when long nights of shot-in-the-dark labwork culminate in the birth of a beastie that’s both ugly and cute, sweet and brooding. It grows up fast.

When Elsa names the child Dren, or “nerd” spelled backwards, it’s abundantly clear that she sees in this highly volatile biological experiment a reflection of herself. She dresses the semi-humanoid Dren in girls’ clothes, like a pale-blue Alice-in-Wonderland dress, and tries to give her an education using Scrabble tiles to spell out words. (In a delightful fillip, Dren’s first word is a mom-and-dad-directed “TEDIOUS.”) Clive, meanwhile, is in the passenger seat for this ride. After agitating early on to kill the thing soon after it emerged from its pupal case, he exercises little influence over its development. In early scenes, he even sports a T-shirt that verbalizes his general affectlessness: it reads, “I Bring Nothing to the Table.”

It’s annoying to watch these two smug hipster douchebags muddle their way through this misguided scientific adventure until you realize that — unlike, let’s say, the women in Sex and the City 2 — they’re actually written as loathsome, in which case it’s only a matter of time until comeuppance happens. The suspense generated by the expectation that, sooner or later, all hell is going to break loose helps sustain the film in its second half, through significant ho-hum passages that mainly occur as the film explores its mother-daughter subtext in a little too much detail, Elsa having relocated Dren from the lab to her childhood home in the country. There’s a generic quality, too, to the film’s climax. It has its moments, but it’s too redolent of any number of out-in-the-woods sequences from the kind of straight-to-video horror movies that you stumble across while channel-surfing in the middle of the night.

But when Splice is in full flower, there’s something magnificent about it. In a multiplex environment, this film is a kind of genetic freak — a highly sexualized hard-R monster movie about bad parenting and the ethics of biogenetics. As Dren grapples with adolescence, she starts to realize the kind of power she actually has over her parents, and that’s where the film’s more unsettling nightmares start to take hold. (There’s a controversy over whether proper credit has been given in this regard, but whoever is responsible for this film’s creature design has a lot to do with its success, as does the crackerjack creature-effects team of Berger and Nicotero.)

I wonder about the film’s sexual politics, mainly because it lays ultimate responsibility for these disastrous events at Elsa’s feet. It doesn’t quite demonize her, but there is this sense of, oh, if only I hadn’t left this woman with her hormones and her abusive family history alone with an ovum, a test tube and a bucket of animal semen, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Anyway, despite the Frankenstein overtones, I’m filing this one in my head as part of a long-running cycle of mommy-horror movies that goes back at least as far as Rosemary’s Baby and continuing through the recent Inside, Orphan, and Grace — icky worst-case scenarios about the head game of carrying, birthing, and raising children.

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