glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | march 2017
M. Night Shyamalan has had some major falls from grace over his career. He started out as a highly praised and exciting new talent, being likened to Hitchcock, praise indeed even if the comparisons were rather overblown. After the laudable “The Sixth Sense" and the rather interesting take on a superhero film – one that had a lot of what DC fans claim the current crop of 'dark and gritty' offerings have – he began to spiral into an out-of-control nose dive of quality with a series of films that, at best, were mildly watchable to suitable only for ridicule.
“Signs" had a ridiculous twist and “The Village" was much the same. Neither was satisfying and the director's signature move looked to have run its course, a flaw that would continue going forward.
“Lady in the Water" tired audiences' patience and comes over as a pure vanity project that wasn't entertaining, and the humanity in crisis film “The Happening" was so broken that despite its high production values, it stands alongside some competition for the title of “Worst Film Ever." It was at least unintentionally entertaining with Mark Wahlberg seemingly in some sort of challenge with his co-stars to see who could act the most concussed. The twist? Plants had turned against humanity, this isn't a spoiler as we find this around the midway mark and it left the film plodding along as the characters spend their time literally running from the wind.
Then, as we all know, we were treated to his take on a much-loved cartoon, which had a huge following. “The Last Airbender" should have been a gimme. The story was all there, and, as it was intended to be a series of films, Shyamalan had time and money to do it justice. Of course it was always going to be scrutinised to within an inch of its life, but the film that eventually landed was astonishingly bad, rushed and abbreviated, it spent its time bouncing through bullet points of the Airbender story.
One would have thought that this series of three failed films would have made him financial poison but somehow Shyamalan managed to get money for various productions such as “Devil," which was also truly awful despite him not directing, and by some miracle, he got funding to direct again with the big budget, high profile Jaden Smith vehicle “After Earth." It tanked. Jaden was awful in the film, while Will Smith himself had character traits that would have a Vulcan trying to persuade him to emote. Suffice to say the movie was a bomb and was hardly even worth a hate watch.
As I haven't seen “The Visit" I can't comment on it, but it seemed to come and go with little fanfare, though the reviews do seem unusually positive. And bringing us up to date, we now have the economically named “Split."
Starring James McAvoy, the story follows a group of girls as they're kidnapped by a stranger who turns out to not need the company. Being host to some 24 personalities, Barry (the dominant personality), or whoever he happens to be at the time, is a one-man gang with a mission: to sacrifice the girls to a powerful personality that is about to surface, The Beast. The girls' only avenue to survive the ordeal is to work with the more sympathetic personalities to make an opportunity to escape. There are few twists, at least few that are as laboured as Shyamalan's later efforts have been, and the story instead relies on the tension generated by the situation and constant air of threat that Barry and his personalities pose.
McAvoy is frankly terrifying and convincing as he switches between the very distinct personalities and playing off from this, Anya Taylor-Joy rides the line of victim and fighter with an ability that should make any actor proud. This strength and conviction of their performances is integral to selling a premise that was always going to be examined right up the backside because of the film's climate surrounding the subject of mental illness.
While such discussion is good and healthy, it should be recognized that this is not a documentary, it's a drama using a story device that is a staple in the history of horror fiction. It's an interesting one, too, that speaks as much of 'normality' as it does abnormality.
There are probably a dozen points of contention when it comes to the film, but that said, it's a really compelling story that draws from classics like “Psycho" and “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" and it does a pretty good job at keeping us on the hook. The constant air of tension is sometimes almost unbearable to the point of being exhausting, and I'm very happy to say that this is the Shyamalan that we needed to see. As one who had all but given up on the director out of frustration, it has to be said that this, at the very least, should indicate that he is still capable of making a film worth a damn to anyone other than himself. It's not a film that lacks the Shyamalan look and feel either, it's unmistakably his film, and I can only hope that this is an indicator that he's back on his game for good now. If you liked his earlier films then you will probably like this and will see it as at least a partial return to form, but like I say, it is a Shyamalan film with his visual quirks and lightly alienating delivery. “Split" may not be for everyone, but as an example of what 'good' Shyamalan is capable of, I can't help but recommend giving it a go.
He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.
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