Friday, January 20, 2017

M. Night Shyamalan’s Split

The term “multiple personality” is out of fashion. Psychiatrists like Dr. Karen Fletcher prefer Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and they really hate horror films that exploit it. Considering her star patient just kidnapped three teenage girls, she really doesn’t have much grounds to complain. Things had been running pretty smoothly inside the body of the man born Kevin Wendell Crumb as long as Barry controlled each personalities’ access to “the light,” but the bad kids have taken over in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (trailer here), which opens today in a theater near you.

Dennis would be the compulsively tidy, sociopathic one and Patricia is his sinister compatriot. They were not supposed to come out anymore, but they won over Hedwig, the bratty pre-teen, who has the power to subvert Barry’s authority. Dennis is now calling the shots, but he plans to give way to an apocalyptic twenty-fourth personality.

It is really bad luck that Casey Cook was abducted. Claire Benoit only invited the troubled gothy girl to her birthday celebration out of reluctant obligation. When Dennis snatches her up along with Benoit and her BFF Marcia, Cook better realizes the precariousness of their position. To survive, they will have to win over one of Crumb’s other personalities—perhaps the one that keeps sending late night cry-for-help emails to Dr. Fletcher, who might just be the least intuitive headshrinker in movie history.

Despite her slow uptake, the best passages in Spit feature her verbally probing Dennis pretending to be Barry. There’s definitely some good war-of-wits-and-words stuff going on. On the other hand, the flashbacks explaining Cook’s family issues are predictable and clumsy. The cat-and-mouse game Cook plays with the twenty-three personalities falls somewhere in between. By now, most of us horror fans are weary of watching a psycho holding women victims in his dungeon, but Shyamalan gives the problematic convention a few fresh spins.

Frankly, the days of Shyamalan’s big phony twist tent-pole movies are long gone and good riddance. If he sticks with Blumhouse, he can make a mint and build up a hip cult following by crafting sinister (so to speak) little genre thrillers. In all honesty, the world can use honest exploitation fair far more than the ponderous pretension of The Happening.

James McAvoy is a pretty game as the many faces of Kevin, preening about quite menacingly. Dr. Fletcher’s diagnoses and methods might be questionable, but Betty Buckley is really terrific as the controversial DID expert. Watching her analyze and spar with McAvoy is great fun. On the other hand, up-and-coming stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula are pretty standard horror movie victims and a rather dreary final girl.

Not to be spoilery, but Shyamalan finds an inspired way to tie the events of Split into the universe of his circa 2000 greatest hits. Arguably, he makes the film right there and then. He also takes a Hitchcockian cameo, but it seems like an endearing eccentricity once the excesses of prior films are stripped away. Creepy and grungy (in the right way), Split should keep the Shyamalan comeback train chugging along. Recommended for fans of psycho and psychological thrillers, Split opens in theaters today (1/20), including the AMC Empire in New York.