Split Second (1992)

Given my longstanding affection for Rutger Hauer and monster movies, it should come as no surprise that I watched Split Second–probably a few times–when it was at the video rental section of my local grocery store growing up. That said, I didn’t remember much of anything about it besides that it was set in “the future” and that the serial killer/monster had something to do with the Scorpio Zodiac sign (which stuck with me probably because I’m a Scorpio).

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You’ll really never get to see the monster this well in the actual movie…

When I sat down to re-watch it recently, I was all geared up to make fun of how 1992 pictured 2008. And certainly the move hits all the check boxes of a movie about the future made in the early 90s: it’s grim, dark, crowded, polluted, and it rains all the time. But in spite of the fact that all the computers still look like ancient IBMs and I don’t remember London being under water by 2008, the not-too-distant future as envisioned by the set dressers of Split Second wasn’t as hilarious as I was expecting. And congrats to the writers for (correctly, it would seem) pegging global warming as the culprit for the future’s many woes.

While I was watching the movie, one of the things that struck me most forcibly was realizing that people in 1992 felt comfortable positing a future this bleak only 16 years away. Probably says something about how hopeful we felt back in the early 90s, huh?

Anyway, prognostications aside, all of Split Second was actually less hilarious than I was expecting. For a movie that’s been called “an extremely stupid monster film” and “utterly soulless and imitative,” I actually found that Split Second held up better than I had imagined. Sure, it’s an incredibly 90s movie. See the completely pointless nudity, the obligatory strip club scene, the dynamic between the lead characters, and maybe especially the weapons. (I’m pretty sure a Gatling shotgun is the most 90s weapon imaginable.) But if you can get into that, then there’s some surprising bits to be found buried within all the tough guy quips and shots of people slogging through water.

For one, flooded London is surprisingly well-realized, and works nicely as a backdrop for the serial killer/monster story. And while Hauer is hampered by the fact that he’s being asked to play essentially a parody of the maverick cop character that was pretty much every lead in every action movie of the era, he’s Rutger Hauer, so he at least extracts some entertainment from the role, and also peppers in a surprisingly good portrait of anxiety and even panic attacks for good measure.

I keep calling this a “serial killer/monster movie,” and that’s another place that Split Second stands out a bit from its peers. The killer in question is certainly a monster, but it’s also a serial killer, and while it never speaks, it is intelligent enough to leave taunting messages for the police and use firearms. So there’s that.

Better yet is the film’s decision to throw in a bunch of information about the monster, but no explanation for it. It’s got the DNA of all of its victims, which probably means something, but we’re never told what. It’s also got rat DNA, tying it at least thematically into the rat infestation that’s plaguing the city, but we’re never told that it’s a mutated rat, or some kind of human/rat hybrid, or anything else of the sort. It leaves occult symbols scrawled in blood at some of the crime scenes, and one of the characters hypothesizes that it thinks it’s Satan, and that, besides taking its victims DNA, it also eats their hearts in order to take their souls to hell. The movie throws a bit of everything at the wall when it comes to the monster, and what makes it kind of work is that it never actually waits for any of it to stick, just tosses it up there and then leaves it hanging. While it’s probably actually sloppiness on the part of the filmmakers, it’s the kind of approach to the strange and unusual that really appeals to me, and that movies take all-too-seldom.

The reactions of the characters to the existence of the monster are also pretty spot on, even if they’re often played for laughs in the film. Seeing the monster transforms the characters. While it doesn’t quite drive them Lovecraftian, gibbering in the madhouse crazy, it does fundamentally alter their priorities and their ideas about things like reason and reality. As it should. From the moment the characters encounter the monster directly, they are obsessed with the monster, and watching them spitball ideas about its nature and origins is a delight. Again, this isn’t always sold particularly well, but it’s a welcome touch, and really, how much nuance can we ask of a screenplay by the writer of The Fast & the Furious?

The monster itself, once it finally makes its appearance, is designed by Blade and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen director Stephen Norrington. Norrington also worked on the creature effects crew for Aliens and Alien 3, and it shows. The monster here is emphatically in the xenomorph school of design, boasting an inexplicable motorcycle helmet visor and pretty cool monster hands (reminiscent of the H.R. Giger poster for Future Kill). It’s also apparently From Dusk Till Dawn vampire squishy, as Rutger Hauer is able to rip its heart out of its chest with his bare hands, in spite of it surviving hails of gunfire as well as being blown up and electrocuted. As a kid, I’m sure that I just assumed this was possible because he was Rutger Goddamn Hauer.

In all, I’ve probably made Split Second sound a lot better than it is, but it is a lot better than you may have heard, and than I had expected. While all the good qualities are just seasoning mixed into a pretty generic early-90s action thriller package, and many of them are undercut by the film’s willingness to go for lazy tropes or play things for laughs, especially in the final reel, they are at least there. Whether you can extract the enjoyment from Split Second that I did will probably depend a lot on your tolerance for this kind of thing, and your willingness to dig around in the soggy detritus around the edges for those few interesting nuggets.

[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]

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