Don’t Breathe. Lights Out. Occulus. Insidious 2. The Conjuring. Those are just some of the recent horror films that, off handedly, paint their maternal characters, in lead or supporting roles, in a bad light. Perhaps, the fact that these women are failing their children due to emotional issues (Don’t Breathe, Lights Out, Insidious 2) or from a form of supernatural possession (Occulus, The Conjuring) does raise the dramatic stakes for some. But, upon reading that James McAvoy’s character in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split was suffering from dissociative identity disorder due to the severe abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother, I was truly tremulous about another round of matriarchal bashing, celluloid style.
Nicely, despite some issues in tone and pacing, Shyamalan does balance things out in this, his second low budget horror outing since his return-to-form with 2015’s highly recommended The Visit. By the final moments he is able to show that oppression and violence, unfortunately, exist across all spectrums of parental guidance. The emotional fate of Casey, his young heroine, thoughtfully and quietly played by The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy, therefore resonates, profoundly, long after the director-writer provides the audience with his form of a Marvel movie nod as the film moves into its somber credit sequence.
Casey, as sharpened movie fans know, is one of three girls kidnapped by McAvoy’s Kevin, whose twenty-three personalities are beginning to shift with the more mischievous and violent of them gaining control over the others. Despite their fear, the girls find ways to fight back as Kevin’s various alters warn them about the coming of something referred to as The Beast. (In particular, it is nice to see such a strong reaction from female characters who, in another universe, would be caricaturized as insecure and indecisive victims.) Meanwhile, Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s therapist, who is working on an academic theory that her patients’ severe traumas have actually shaped them into something far outside of the ordinary, begins to suspect that something is not right with Kevin and begins to investigate.
Definitely vibing on Hitchcock by way of DePalma, everything from Spellbound to Psycho to Dressed to Kill might come to mind here, Shyamalan crafts some wonderfully tense set-ups. Even when things go deliciously astray, he occasionally evokes the fun rhythms of DePalma’s (less well received) Raising Cain. This is in large part due to McAvoy’s enthusiastic mastery. Whether he is embodying the peculiar Hedwig, a nine year old who thinks kissing leads to pregnancy, or the primly efficient Patricia, he supplies the project with nervy energy and a strange, much needed sense of black humor.
Meanwhile, it is nice to see the divine Betty Buckley with a prominent role in a horror feature, forty years after her film debut as the sympathetic Miss Collins in Carrie. Calm yet passionate, her Dr. Fletcher often floats past in soft, curvy waves, accentuated by large necklaces and gesticulating, jeweled fingers. She is the smart, revolutionary aunt that young feminists (of every sex) would love to claim as their own. Unfortunately, Shyamalan doesn’t quite find a way to balance her scenes with those of the young women in peril. Therefore, momentum is lost and the tension flags.
Still, there are enough wildly eccentric ideas on display, including some the mental health industry might find questionable, and enough of Shyamalan’s astute artistry here to qualify this picture as a particular success. The last look at Taylor-Joy’s haunted eyes might also find a significant entryway into your soul, as well.
Until the next time – SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!