Some would call M. Night Shyamalan a bad director. His biggest weakness comes from the tone of his films. There is always something a little “off” in most of his work. Whether it be The Happening’s attempt at the seriousness of plants killing humans coming across like a complete unintentional joke or Lady in the Water’s wacky mythology including a big jab at film critics for disliking the director. Shyamalan’s latest film, Split, continues his tone deaf style, complete with an icky ending when we are led to believe that child abuse can teach you a thing or two about survival or that people with dissociative identity disorder are dangerous. Split, however is a refreshing return to horror, and his best since Signs. What Shyamalan does really well with Split, is creating a new, true horror movie monster. This is something that is lacking in horror films of late. There are home invasion, psychological, man against nature, and so many zombie (a classic monster, but not a new one) horror movies hogging the screens. Shyamalan’s monster is fresh and alive due to a great and wild performance by James McAvoy. McAvoy plays Kevin, a man who suffered abuse as a child and has 23 separate personalities. Three of the personalities are Dennis, a violent man with obsessive compulsive disorder, Hedwig, a nine year old boy, and Patricia, a woman with a British accent who keeps the other three under control; they are preparing for the arrival of a 24th personality known as “The Beast”. At the beginning of the film Kevin kidnaps three teenage girls, Claire, Marcia, and Casey, from a birthday party and takes them to his lair (which we find out later is underneath the Philadelphia Zoo!). The audience and the girls learn through Hedwig that they are meant for a sacrifice to “The Beast”. They attempt escape all while Kevin shows them his different personalities between visits with his psychiatrist, played by Betty Buckley who worked with Shyamalan on The Happening and was Carrie’s understanding teacher in the horror film Carrie (1976).
You can’t have a great monster without a great heroine. Casey, played by Anya Talor-Joy (whom you may remember is the lead in one of the best horror films of 2015, The Witch), has also suffered child abuse and sees a way to connect with Kevin in order to escape. Talor-Joy has a way of embodying both innocence and cunning in her character, who is a formidable opponent for “The Beast”. When Kevin transforms into “The Beast”, he physically transforms to become bigger, stronger, faster, and hungry for human flesh. The obvious comparison would be the transformation from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, however in Kevin’s case, he transforms his body with his mind. Some would argue that having Kevin transform into a beast-like monster lessens the psychological horror of the film turning it into camp, but I wonder why this is a bad thing. The film’s pop psychology is not a strong enough framework for a serious psychological romp and from the beginning, it flirts with a campy vibe. As a horror fan, I appreciate when whatever “it” is turns out to be an actual monster no matter how silly. I get a feeling of exhilarating fun when discovering a new creature in horror; it reminds me of being a kid. It is a safe unknown. M. Night Shyamalan shows us over and over again that he too appreciates a bit of fun and folklore. That is something that I love about him, even through his faults as a filmmaker there is a sincerity to his films, a lack of cynicism. I can remember connecting with that sincerity as a kid, staying up late to watch my favorite horror movies on VHS. Also, he always films in Philly, so give him props for representing, guys.