Mumblegore is a relatively new term that has blossomed with the low budget, yet character-driven, indie horror films that have been released in the past decade. It was born out of the Mumblecore genre, introduced in 2002 with films such as Funny HA HA (2002) by Andrew Bujalski and Puffy Chair (2005) by the Duplass Brothers.
Mumblegore takes that genre into the realm of horror, with films such as You’re Next (2011), The Sacrament (2013), and V/H/S (2012) as prime examples. Due to lower budgets and almost no studio pressure, these films are much more experimental. A few directors and writers have been credited with the birth and rise of this strange subgenre. Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S), Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), and Ti West (House of the Devil, The Sacrament) are just a few of the people working to create strange yet terrifying stories that push the boundaries of horror.
I want to expand the definition, which is my goal with this column. I will try to venture outside of those well-known directors and scour the corners of the Internet to expand the idea of Mumblegore.
“[…] horror movies about monsters are all about special effects, gore, and scares, but Splinter is something different.”
In the previous entries of this column, I’ve attacked the more typical Mumblegore movies. They’re the ones that show up on numerous Letterboxd lists or are the first to pop-up if you happen to Google the subgenre. This month, however, I want to venture out of the Mumblegore comfort zone and into something a little different. I want to make the case for Toby Wilkins’ (The Grudge 3) 2008 film, Splinter, as a Mumblegore creature feature. That may seem like an oxymoron, as horror movies about monsters are all about special effects, gore, and scares, but Splinter is something different. It weaves a story that focuses on the survival and stories of its characters while also creating a disgusting and horrifying parasitic creature on a low budget.
Outdoorsy Polly Watt (Jill Wagner, Teen Wolf) and her nerdy biologist boyfriend Seth Belzer (Paulo Costanzo, The Royal Pains) are heading into the wilderness for a romantic camping weekend. But it all goes awry when they become hostages to fugitive couple Dennis Farell (Shea Whigham, Take Shelter) and Lacey Belisle (Rachel Krebs, Heist). They stop at a tiny gas station and come face-to-face with a horrific parasitic infection that takes over its host’s body with infectious splinters. Lacey falls victim to the parasite, and the rest of the group must take refuge inside the gas station. They have to pool all their knowledge and skills to figure out how to escape the creature without becoming part of its ever-growing form.
From the synopsis, Splinter sounds like any other rural horror movie, where poor criminals abduct city folk but they must band together and unite against a common evil. However, instead of relying on surface-level stereotypes, Wilkins gives each character just enough backstory and depth for the audience to become invested in their survival without bogging the narrative done with context. Instead of Dennis becoming another villainous hick, he has a rather sympathetic backstory where he just wants to give himself and Lacey a fresh start in Mexico. He’s been a criminal for most of his life, but now wants to flee the law and start a new life. But he continues to get pulled into more incriminating activity, from robbing banks to taking hostages. Whigham captures both the panicked desperation and defensive aggression that make Dennis an oddly loveable horror hero.
While Whigham carries much of the film’s emotional weight, Wagner and Costanzo also deliver strong, emotional performances that make their unlikely relationship all the more admirable. Dennis makes quite a few comments about how an athletic and “hot” woman like Polly could end up with a gangly nerd like Seth. However, Polly and Seth complement each other with their intelligence and quick thinking. They are a well-paired team that, despite the daunting creature that wants to block their every move, still works well under tremendous pressure.
In an interview with Sci-Fi Online, Wilkins said,
“It’s not just about the latest tricks, or the most bizarre deaths – though those are cool to watch – I think that getting away from the whiz-bang toys, and returning to what’s key to a story is where the focus should be. Interesting characters and genuine performances give the audience a reason to care. Once you’re engrossed in the story you’ll be along for the ride. Then add gore and blood and you hopefully end up with a fun and entertaining horror film with characters the audience cares about.”
This quote encapsulates the spirit of Splinter and why it deserves the label of Mumblegore . Wilkins approached a gory monster movie through a different lens: he didn’t want to just make the audience care about the creature, but about those who have to survive.
But, of course, I would be doing the film a disservice if I didn’t mention its creature design. The parasite infects the human body and turns it into a zombie-like figure covered in black spikes. These spikes carry the infection and are shot at organic lifeforms, like the way a porcupine shoots its quills. When multiple people are infected, the parasite brings the bodies together into one monstrous body, a mass of arms, legs, and faces. As Splinter progresses, the monster gets bigger and bigger, becoming an even more daunting enemy. It won’t fall when shot at and its only weakness is fire (which is discovered through a lot of trial and error). This monster, in all its repulsive glory, is a prime example of how Mumblegore can do a creature without relying on expensive CGI or complicated effects.
Wilkins explained how he approached designing the film’s creature in an interview with ComingSoon.net:
“The way the Splinter creature manifests itself is essentially an adaptation of whatever its victims are. So in our case human beings are fairly easy to replicate. You don’t have to, on a limited budget, try to create a massive thing with teeth, an animatronic face, eyeballs and things like that. So you’ve got essentially dead human beings as the template for what the creature is. And then your imagination can take over how that would be distorted and broken and repurposed for a creature that has no regard for how your skeleton is supposed to behave.”
The creature’s base really just is a human body. So, just cover it in spikes and gore and you have a monster that deserves to be ranked among the best of horror. Plus, there is a smaller version of the monster that comes in the form of a chopped-off hand that can move on its own. This parasitic infection is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing in how it can manipulate and change the human body for its needs.
“[….] who says a monster movie can’t create both a terrifying monster and characters with emotional depth?”
Mumblegore often seems like it has a very specific aesthetic that involves hipsters, warehouses, and the same group of actors. However, Splinter encapsulates the genre, and why I started this column in the first place. It is a film that showcases the creativity of independent horror filmmakers and their ability to adapt to any budget. Mumblegore is centered on its characters, yes, but who says a monster movie can’t create both a terrifying monster and characters with emotional depth? Splinter is a piece of phenomenal horror filmmaking that marries horror and emotional connection to create a movie that deserves more recognition.