Fantastic Fest 2016: M. Night Shyamalan's Madhouse Horror 'Split'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 27, 2016
Split is filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan's most terrifying film to date. Granted this opinion is coming from someone who finds The Sixth Sense, while a phenomenal film with a wonderfully choreographed twist, not all that scary, and, though Signs and The Village deliver the thrills, there's nothing on par with Split in terms of how relentless in intensity and so very chilling it is. Shyamalan used to be considered a master of these types of genre films. Although his work has been less than stellar in recent years, the director's filmmaking and storytelling prowess seem to be back in line. Split is his return, and, with a wonderfully creepy turn by James McAvoy in the lead role, Shyamalan's latest ends up being his absolute best horror film to date. And, holy shit, what an ending, but we'll get to that momentarily.
McAvoy stars in Split as Kevin, a very troubled, young man, who, in the film's opening moments, kidnaps three, teenage girls: the outcast, Casey (The Witch star Anya Taylor-Joy) and two of her more popular friends (Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson). It isn't long before the girls discover Kevin's secret. He, in fact, embodies 23 separate personalities, all different ages and genders and none willing (or able) to help them escape. As Casey and her friends try and try again to escape the underground lair in which Kevin has them locked away, we also follow Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin's doctor who is, herself, having difficulty keeping all of his personalities in line. Things go from bad to worse with the possibility of a 24th personality, a creature a few of Kevin's personalities lovingly refer to as "The Beast".
First and foremost to be commended with Split is the director's incessant grip on tone. There's an inherent creepiness to everything happening to the trio of girls. They aren't harmed, per se, only kept under lock and key while something foreboding appears to be happening within Kevin. The director keeps us disoriented within the layer in which they're being held, never quite revealing what we're actually observing until late in the film, and that lack of geography keeps you guessing around every corner.
We shouldn't go much further without commenting on the endlessly watchable performance James McAvoy gives, his grasp on each of the personalities we see Kevin go through as firm as the director's grip on the atmosphere. McAvoy effortlessly moves between them, whether it's the elderly authority figure, Priscilla, or the OCD kidnapper, himself, Dennis. It's when the actor embodies Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy, that McAvoy gets to dance and smirk with absolute glee, making the performance all the creepier to behold.
Shyamalan seems to be gleeful in his writing of the character, as well. For all of its suspense the filmmaker never shies away from injecting a good bit of humor, a nice reprieve from the set mood although much of that comes from the discomfort the film appears to be putting you in. All the push and pull on your senses ratchets up until the film spirals into madness and complete horror, the finale as intense as any horror seen in recent memory.
It certainly helps that Taylor-Joy is rock solid as Casey, her flashbacks to a hunting trip with her father and uncle creating a poignant backstory while building up her strengths. The young actress proved herself in a big way with The Witch earlier this year, and seeing her character shape and grow throughout Split only heightens that anticipation for what she has to offer in the future.
Which brings us to the film's ending. Don't worry. I'm going to broach this subject with an ample amount of care, because Split is a film that should not be spoiled. The marketing for this film should easily get away without revealing the surprise, though the cat will surely be out of the bag after the film's opening weekend on January 20th. I wouldn't even qualify the film's final moment as a typical M. Night Shyamalan twist, as it's something that isn't choreographed or foreshadowed nor does it change the absolutely stellar horror film that precedes it. Does it feel a bit tacked on? Sure, but what the scene means for the way Shyamalan handles his characters and situations makes this critic all the more excited to see what he has in store for us next.
It would appear M. Night Shyamalan has made a bit of a return in the last few years with The Visit and now Split being developed under the Blumhouse Productions logo, and this particular marriage of studio and filmmaker seems to be benefiting everyone involved. Shyamalan has been forced to go back to the basics of filmmaking, lowering his budgets for his projects, and working out creative stories with highly original characters. If Split is the shape of things to come for the gifted filmmaker I would say the horror genre is in for some much needed excitement in its near future.
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