One of 2016's most hyped films has been M. Night Shyamalan's return to the dark horror genre, Split.
After several years of ahem, split opinions on the quality of his work, with movies like The Village, The Happening and After Earth being loathed or ridiculed, while his earlier works The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable considered classic examples in making something "different" work with audiences and critics alike.
Split is indeed a true return to form and I would argue will eventually be seen as his best film to date. It's unrelentingly dark, works on multiple levels to engage the viewer and offers one of the most outrageous finales in movie history.
This article DOES contain spoilers. So if you want to wait, I'd strongly advise you to come back when you've seen it! Part of the reason the movie works so well is that you really don't know what way the story is going at times and I'm not here to ruin that for you.
Twisting a Nerve
Split works off a controversial premise, that DID patients actually take on physical characteristics and skills of their identities and that body chemistry can be fundamentally altered by it.
An example used in the film is that if one personality is a "Russian Strongman" then his body strength will be perhaps 3 times that of another personality in the same body, and he will naturally speak Russian, even if the host themselves never learned the language.
This idea of shaping a theory around a fake medical theory is a controversial one. Twisted Nerve did it in the 60's (yes the Kill Bill whistle is from this film...NOT Disney!) by alleging siblings of those with Downs Syndrome were genetically pre-disposed to violence and mental illness. It was a debunked theory even then, causing outrage in the press at the time but made for a good Horror premise none the less.
Split is doing the same, only this time tacking "supernatural" connotations to a very real mental illness and could catch flak as a result, but it's doing so in such a way that it will be more palatable to the masses. In effect it's an origin story and it very much purports that what WE see as an illness is in fact a power. Is the idea really THAT much different to The Incredible Hulk, Harvey "Two Face" Dent or the forthcoming Legion for example?
We Need To Talk About Kevin
One of the cleverest aspects of Split is that the actual protagonist is so well hidden. Kevin has 23 personalities that he has manifested as part of his Disassociative Identity Disorder (DID) and we only ever get to meet Kevin himself very briefly.
Kevin is the true tragic figure of the piece and our window into what is really going on. We catch fragments of why each identity exists and what their role is but never enough to truly justify their actions. The "dominant" Dennis acts as the violent enforcer of the group, whose OCD and violence make him a tormentor AND defender of Kevin at the same time. Patricia on the other hand is one part Mary Poppins another Mrs. Carmoody from The Mist. She provides the "good cop" to Dennis, but is far more sinister underneath while Barry, the flamboyant fashion designer is the "public face" used to appease the world and his psychiatrist.
As the movie progresses and each personality has it's time "in the light" we begin to realize that actually you're watching the birth of what could be a superhero...or super-villain. Often their pre-powers persona is completely swallowed by the new creation and they can't "go back" or fight battles with their new self for dominance. Kevin is very much like Bruce Banner, only he has 23 versions of the Hulk rather than Green, Grey, Joe Fixit to contend with.
When 24th persona finally appears, it's confirmed that is what this movie really is and even this personality has a code. It puts him right up there with The Punisher, Deadpool, Logan and Magneto. All of them are anti-heroes who use violence and murder to achieve their goals, be they good or bad is down to their situation at the particular moment and your "point of view". The "price" paid, as there often is for any hero or villain is that Kevin may be lost forever to accommodate The Horde, but there's a movie in trying to find/reach him.
Starting A Universe
We're now entering into REAL spoiler territory, but the movie ends with what I think is both a very cool but also outrageous "twist" that sets up not only a sequel but a Cinematic Universe based around Shyamalan's earlier works.
We cut to a diner where people are shocked at the horror of Kevin's crimes, The media have already nicknamed him "The Horde" and are very seriously reporting on his illness and that it is a factor in the crimes, including The seemingly supernatural "Beast". A trio of 3 young girls (scarily similar to the main characters) comment about "The guy in the wheelchair who they put away years before..." and can't remember his name. "Mr. Glass" comes the response from Bruce Willis as David Dunn, the hero of Unbreakable (complete with helpful uniform shirt with David on it to remind you) which was in itself an alternate take on the superhero origin story. In today's world of Marvel and DC movies, Unbreakable is not only very ahead of its time, but easily as good as the MCU outings and far better than nearly anything DC related without Chris Nolan's involvement. In this case the "risk" was already taken back in 2000, and Split simply makes people think "wait...this could work!"
This would certainly indicate that a sequel to Split that dovetails with an earlier movie is possible and something Shyamalan will now seriously look at doing.
A lot of why Split works is down to James McAvoy. Another "franchise" for him is overdue in some ways. In a world where Ian McKellen could be both Gandalf and Magneto or Michael Fassbender can star in X-Men, Alien and Assassins Creed movies at the same time, there should be no problem.
Adding Willis and without question Sam L. Jackson for a Hannibal style cameo for a sequel makes the next movie instantly more interesting. Not only to fans of Shyamalan or Split/Unbreakable but of the superhero genre as a whole. In this new era of R-rated hero movies, it could be a bloodbath/Hard R but also tell a deep and dark story at the same time - rather than playing the darkness for laughs or effect ala Deadpool or Kick-Ass.
Who Else Could We See?
There is definitely scope later on to add the kids or even Pop and Nana from The Visit into the mix. Perhaps the events of The Happening were down to a diabolical villain's plot rather than a natural phenomenon or the residents of The Village are somehow connected to Kevin? Perhaps a member of the Hess Family from Signs could be involved?
Even Haley Joel Osment's Cole Sear from The Sixth Sense could feature as he would also be classed as a "superhero" in this universe, his power is he can see dead people. Those could be Kevin's mother or his victims or even Kevin himself. It could even lead to an Avengers style team up of heroes (and Villains if you count Mr. Glass) from Shyamalan films all teaming up to take on The Horde!
From an acting perspective alone, it would bring the chance to bring actors like Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin & Bryce Dallas Howard into the mix. Much as Marvel built around quality actors first, this could be a similar way to build a franchise.
Quite how many people would buy into this remains to be seen, but in today's almost homogenized world of franchises, a "NightVerse" could offer a "thinking man's" way to enjoy the genre and a way for M.Night Shyamalan to reinvent himself, Split has started that process for him. For the first time in years, he is "in" again, keeping that ball rolling could be very easy if he connects his work more deeply.