John Gholson: It was the internet's critical darling, with multiple film websites practically begging genre fans to get out and see it, but Splice opened with a fizzle, not a sizzle. Why is that? I think mis-marketing is partially to blame. In the days leading up to release, I heard more than one person claim, "I liked Splice better when it was called Species." If this movie's ads recalled Species more than a modern updating of Frankenstein, then the trailers really didn't do their job.
Plus, Warner Brothers sold the film as a pure horror flick, which it most definitely isn't. It's not terrifying (and doesn't try to be), but some of it's ideas are. Splice is much more of a sci-fi film than horror film, but nobody seems to know how to market sci-fi without spaceships anymore. It's too cerebral for the typical modern horror audience (those looking for a by-the-numbers thrill ride), and its black humor can be off-putting to those that don't realize that when Splice shows its B-movie, mad-science roots or goes for an audacious laugh, it's 100% intentional on writer-director Vincenzo Natali's part.
Peter Hall: I wish I could say I was shocked by the lackluster performance of Splice at the box office, but I wasn't surprised in the least. I agree that the marketing for the movie was too narrow in its focus to properly convey all the different moods Natali strikes, but I also think part of the problem was how ubiquotous the marketing was. I think most people who were on the fence about the film wound up being clobbered over the head by TV spot after TV spot offline and flash ad after flash ad when online. Bad ads are one thing, bad ads you can't escape are a whole different beast.
I was surprised, however, by the reaction to the film from those who did actually go to see it. Case in point the Reddit community. Redditors, a smart and savvy group with typically refined tastes and a dark sense of humor, should have been a perfect match for Natali's film, but over the release weekend the only submissions regarding the film were ones slagging it off as a stupid, worthless creature feature that jumps the rails in its third act. It didn't seem to resonate with the horror crowds, the sci-fi crowds, or even the cool hunter crowd, so who did Splice actually resonate with, then?
Gholson: Sometimes I think audiences are embarrassed when they can't articulate why a movie strikes them as odd, so they dismiss it to avoid the conversation. It's easier to say something sucks than it is to explain why it caught them off guard. That's something else as well -- it seems more and more like audiences go to the movies to get a McDonald's experience. Easy, generic, interchangeable, familiar, forgettable. It's certainly not what I go to the movies for, and the more unpredictable a film is, the more I usually like it.
For 90% of its runtime, Splice was exactly what a want from a movie. I got well-drawn characters in an unusual story. I couldn't tell where it was going, I appreciated the fact that Natali expertly balanced the cheeky B-movie tropes with complex interpersonal drama, and I loved the beautiful monster, Dren. I'm not the biggest fan of the ending, when it becomes more of a traditional monster movie, but I'll forgive that because I had such a good time up to that point.
I'm sort of a Frankenstein geek, and more than anything, I applaud Natali for updating the story to modern day in a clever way. A huge part of Mary Shelley's original story is the screwed-up parent/child relationship between Victor and the monster. Most fIlm versions of Frankenstein usually don't even explore those themes, so we're left instead with simple "don't play God" parables. Splice has that stuff, but it also nails Shelley's intent regarding the relationship between horrified, fascinated parents and the not-quite-human spawn they've created.
What did people expect? Another Alien rip-off? Would that have satisfied anyone, really?
Hall: I think all most people, ie. anyone who only knew of Splice what the trailers had sold them, were expecting was another Species. And even though a lot of people prematurely mocked the film for being just that, I think had it ended up as such, in a weird way that would have satisfied them if only because it would have been safe. Like you said, people don't want to be challenged; they don't want to have to think about a movie; they want what they're expecting.
I couldn't believe it when I walked out of the press screening and people, who I didn't recognize but can only assume were fellow critics, were calling it a "Syfy movie". That's such a ridiculous, uninformed comparison that it actually makes me angry. Anyone who wants to call Splice a Syfy movie has no idea what Syfy movies are. They're cheap, dispensable entertainment with outdated special effects in service of a story so basic that it exists only as a reason for which to have the outdated special effects.
Splice, on the other hand, not only has cutting edge effects work, but it has a layered story that's powerful enough to draw your attention away from the eye candy. I highly, highly doubt it will get one, but I think one of the best victories Splice could have at this point - because it's definitely not going to find a mainstream, American audience - would be an Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects. It won't get one, of course, but I'd say it at least deserves the recognition. I'm sure, as with all of Natali's films, it will end up finding a very appreciative fan base.
Unfortunately the price of that loyalty is yet another commercial misfire from Hollywood's inability to merge indie genre with mainstream genre. I'm not yet sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. We're less likely to see indie genre films go this wide again any time soon, yes, but hopefully that means it will be a while before we're writing another "What Happened to ____" post.