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Month of Horror 2017: Dealer’s Choice – M. Night Shyamalan: Split

10/29/2017 – M. Night Shyamalan: Split (2017)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

What can I say, I called an audible. Scroll enough and you’ll find a review of Baskin, but I felt this needed to be spotlighted considering its length (and not at all because titling the thread as being about Split will get more eyeballs than promises of Turkish delights).

In 1999, a director who at that point made only a little seen drama and an unsuccessful Rosie O’Donnell comedy (as well as writing Stuart Little), wrote and directed what would become his defining work. The Sixth Sense was a rare horror smash that not only made a ton of money (the second highest grossing film of the year and the highest grossing horror film ever made), but also was critically acclaimed and nominated for six Oscars. It became especially famous for its twist ending, a rare twist that caught most people by surprise but seemed obvious and well fleshed out to those spoiled (me) or rewatching it. Even without the twist, it is a top to bottom great movie and Shyamalan was instantly anointed as “The Next Big Thing”.

Following up such a huge breakthrough hit is a very hard task and basically impossible. For every Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Philadelphia (and really, Jaws and Silence of the Lambs are probably the best comparisons to make in terms of success, impact, and acclaim), there are countless others whose follow up work was a huge disappointment (just ask Romero, Hooper, or Craven to start). And to Shyamalan’s credit, Unbreakable was a very good film that was just a step away from being right on par. It got crap for its ending (mostly for the way the film just seemed to stop without getting to the expected third act) but I liked it and it was a change of pace from most superhero films (not that I have any problems with the standard variety).

The warning signs didn’t really come until the release of his next film and return to horror, Signs. While it was accepted by many as being a good film (I am not one of those), the War of the Worlds inspired twist was idiotic and Shyamalan started being known as “that guy who makes films with twist endings” instead of some “next big thing”. This only intensified with The Village which has its fans (less so but I know one in specific who I hope will defend the film below) but was even worse received with an even more hated twist.

Lady in the Water is when the popular opinion of Shyamalan really soured though with it being widely hated and his acting role (which had aside from his debut) was given far too much attention for the public’s taste. It was the first film of his to be a financial failure, only just making back its pre-marketing budget, and left him as a joke. The Happening only intensified this and the backlash at his white-washed adaptation of The Last Airbender left his career seeming like it was coming to an end. When his name showed up in trailers for Devil he was booed across the nation (I can attest to seeing it first hand) and what was meant to be the first of many films he used his name to promote, turned out to be the last. Still, Shyamalan’s films were making money (even that truly shitty Devil) and so he kept get jobs. The financial disappointment of the Will Smith tries to make his son a thing film After Earth brought that to a crashing halt as now Shyamalan was no longer bankable or critically well.

As harsh as critics are portrayed as being, they truly are big softies. They may be eager to tear someone down when they are high, but there is nothing they love more than a comeback story (aside from maybe a potential breakout star). It started with the mediocre reviews for Devil (which existed despite the fact that his directing ability always exceeded his writing ability) and continued on with the slightly better reviews for the truly terrible The Visit. Critics rushed to proclaim this low budget Blumhouse film as the “Return of Shyamalan”, albeit less so after they actually saw it. Audiences returned in droves too as the typically low budgeted (and found footage) Blumhouse model led to a near $100 million gross on a mere $5 million budget. It seemed like the increasingly bloated budgets were his ultimate downfall, and now returned to lower budgeted roots, he had found a new home.

The stage was set for his return to the limelight and his reteaming with Blumhouse in Split did just that with his best reviews since Signs and a $278 million gross on only a slightly bigger $9 million budget. I’m a big softy too and wanted this to be his return to form (even after being spoiled on the twist days after the film’s release as every headline writer rushed forth in a quest to be the biggest asshole). I had been too burned by Devil and The Visit though to put much faith in the positive review for a Shyamalan film and has my expectations fairly well tempered. Ultimately, I don’t think it is possible for my expectations to be low enough for Split to have met them.

A couple of friends and an outcast get into a car waiting for one of theirs’ dad to get in with them. There’s a moderate thunk behind the car and James McAvoy slides into the driver’s seat instead. After a bit of an awkward “the hell is going on looks” McAvoy puts on a mask and sprays them all with something, transporting them to a locked room SPOILERS in a zoo END OF SPOILERS which will serve as the primary setting for the film. Based on the trailers (speaking of dumb trailers), I expected it to basically all take place in the underground place but there’s a surprising amount that doesn’t, and it often feel like the film has basically just forgotten about the girls down there.

The outcast (played by Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch who has the same stupid dumbfounded expression on her face basically the entire movie) quickly establishes herself as the only one who can take care of herself, giving the sound advice to one of the girls to piss herself to scare off an OCD suffering McAvoy. She also, based on the endless flashbacks, has hunting experience at the very least and probably more in survival training SPOILERS not to mention having to deal with the abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncleEND OF SPOILERS. She is also the one who is smart enough to play off of Child McAvoy sensing he is the most likely to be able to save them.

As made obvious by the trailer and the title, McAvoy’s character suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder: Movie Edition which means he manifests as 23 unique identities. Yet the movie still plays this off with a grand reveal of McAvoy dressed in *gasp* women’s clothing. There’s a neat freak, Martin Short’s Clifford, one who likes watching topless women, a domineering man, a motherly woman, a diabetic, etc. well really it just mostly focuses on those first five. He is apparently one of a group of similar people and but has managed to work a job for 10 years with no incident before this one. He’s also seeing a therapist who is a specialist in people like them.

The girls find a grate in the ceiling which one girl is able to escape through, but she is quickly caught, and they are all separated which allows the film to basically stop caring about two of them or bothering to give either a personality, so it can just focus on Taylor-Joy and McAvoy. The personalities of McAvoy keep speaking about how some guy is coming and how the women are the food. The whole movie is clearly just building to a twist and SPOILERS this guy is in truth a 24th identity who is unlocked by the power of believing really hard which allows him to grow big muscles, be super strong, climb walls, and not be affected by bullets. He keeps trying to show off the plan to the therapist, but she disapproves and as a result he hugs her to death. The beast kills the two girls who don’t matter and just starts eating one but spares the outcast because of her scars, as earlier identities went after the girls specifically because “they haven’t suffered” while she clearly has.

Then Bruce Willis shows up at the end to tie this to Unbreakable as Glass (the villain from that film) has been locked up for 15 years. It’s lame but would have been less lame if you know, every fucking editor online didn’t put it in their headlines days after the film was released that it was connected to Unbreakable. I have to give Shyamalan credit for not going with much of a twist and it’s almost disappointing at how little of a twist there was. I mean I guessed that the outcast would be spared really fucking quick (even before the endless flashbacks) that but I figured they’d go for more than just “The Beast is real” and “This is in the Unbreakable universe” which hell I might have guessed regardless or rather thought “Hey, isn’t this exactly what Mr. Glass was banging on about at the end of that movie”. They spell out the entire movie early and then act it out exactly as they described in clinical fashion.

There’s also the fact that Shyamalan has been trying to make a sequel to it for years, but nobody wanted it since the consensus was that the twist to Unbreakable sucked or shouldn’t have just been tacked on at the end of the movie (sound familiar?). This just feels like a lazy attempt to finally make his superhero franchise by tapping into what all those cool kids are into, connected universes. I’m one of the few people who actually like that twist and its placement but the story worked because it told a complete story, we didn’t need more. Maybe Bruce Willis’ regular guy superhero will add something to the genre but his powers of being really strong and not getting sick or hurt are hardly all that interesting in an inevitable battle of super strong people. END OF SPOILERS

The films main conceit is a failure (not even including the its depiction of people with mental illnesses). There’s only a few identities given more than token screen time and even then, there’s not really time to flesh any of them out. I’m sure having one actor do a bunch of different roles is a big part of the acclaim of the film but that doesn’t inherently make it good. Just having James McAvoy do a bunch of one note performances doesn’t make a symphony, it just makes an elementary school band. Even the scene where he shows of a bunch of his identities back to back just feels token. Seeing him dance to electro music was goofy as hell and there’s no way that anyone could take it seriously and it’s as if Shyamalan really wanted his version of “Goodbye Horses” but had no clue what made that scene work. It’s also apparently possible to Beetlejuice one of his identities out by saying his name three times.

The film keeps breaking the flow like a man with a faulty prostate and never even become vaguely tense. I really did want this film to be good, but M. Night Shyamalan is gone and he’s never coming back no matter how much you try and will it to happen. You tried this shit with The Visit and I fell for it there, you can’t try it again after this failure. Bad movies can make me bored or angry, but rarely do I feel that “I wasted my time”. There’s plenty to be learned from pretty much any movie and especially the bad ones. At the very least, I feel they are great for recalibrating my standards and making the imperfect films that still succeed in entertaining all the more appreciated. Split made me genuinely feel like I wasted two hours of my life that I will never get back. Speaking of, I should have just watched the other movie I was considering, Life.

Bonus Episode #18 – Turkey: Baskin (2015)
Directed by Can Evrenol

While Turkey was not created as a nation until 1920, it’s film industry began in 1914 with the release of the (now lost) documentary Demolition of the Russian Monument at San Stefano, when it was still the center of the Ottoman Empire. The Spy, the first narrative feature, was released in 1917 but the industry as a whole didn’t come into its own until the 1950s. In the ensuing three decades, hundreds of films, including such acclaimed titles as Kuyu, Umut, Dry Summer, The Chaos Class, and the trilogy consisting of The Bride, The Wedding, and The Sacrifice. Few of these films achieved any sort of international attention and a military coup in 1980 brought an end to this Golden Age (though films such as Palme d’Or winner Yol still saw release).

There has been a revival of sorts in the 2000s (presaged by 1996’s The Bandit) though the films remain mostly popular in the Arab world. Still, films like Uzak, Lovelorn, Climates, Three Monkeys (the closest they have ever gotten to an Oscar nomination), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and Winter Sleep (another Palme d’Or winner), have occasionaly burst out to receive a bit of acclaim internationally.

Turkish horror with scant exceptions has been a more recent innovation. My more recent, I mean almost non-existent a decade ago. Until the release of today’s film, none of their films have received any sort of attention outside of the region even though they have managed to get a couple series started in D@bbe and Siccîn. In fact, Baskin (based on a 2013 short) was only the 8th Turkish film ever released in the US when it was given a limited release in 2016.

The opening depicts a boy nervously leaving his bed, only for a door to slam behind him as a robed man reaches for him. The robed figure is next seen bringing a bunch of meat to a place where a group of asshole cops are eating and being awful until one of them throws up and starts having a bit of a breakdown where he sees the robed figure in a mirror. They receive a call about an incident in a notoriously creepy town, but on the way there a naked man runs out across the road and while they are distracted trying to find him, something scratches their van a bunch of times and a mass of frogs appears.

They drive off and accidentally hit someone on the road, sending their car flying off the road. The movie cuts back to the restaurant where one of the cops tells the story of the intro (the boy was him) and he keeps dreaming about this. Turns out they are able to see strange things like the robe figure and blood flowing everywhere when they look out of the corner of their eyes. The imagery of all this is pretty great, especially a shot of the cop sinking in the water when giant hands come to save him.

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He wakes from this dream and finds himself pulled from the water and they are surrounded by strange people. They discover an odd abandoned building where it is clear satanic stuff has happened. It’s here where the film goes absolutely mental as the various rooms depict such rooms as SPOILERS one filled with people in chains and fucking while covered in shit where they overwhelm one of the cops and another with ton of corpses and someone chopping up bodies. It almost resembles one of those extreme haunted houses.

Turns out the man in the hood is some bald-headed man with an unusual face (which isn’t makeup). The cops are tied up and one by one graphically murdered and tortured. It’s all intercut with tons of surreal imagery and all very bloody and graphic as we delve into the visions of the one cop. The final cop is able to escape and murder the leader, running out celebrating onto the road covered in blood and it turns out he was the man they hit before. END OF SPOILERS Also, the end credits have informed me there is apparently Turkish Metalcore with along with the fact that I now know there is Turkish Splatter films, I feel like I have been transported a decade into the past.

I’ll admit to being stupid and having to rewind a number of times to figure out what is going on as the film is quite vague at times and took me out of the flow of the film on a few occasions. Still, I’ll take moving too quickly over the dragging out the plot that so many recent films I’ve spotlighted went with. It definitely went for shock value with all the gore lovingly focused on, but it was pretty compelling all the same and you can’t deny that it was super satisfying considering the victims.

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Bonus Episode #19 – Slasher: The Zodiac Killer (1971)
Directed by Tom Hanson

Recently restored by AGFA and Something Weird (which is how I got my copy from the Kickstarter), The Zodiac Killer comes to us from director Tom Hanson and featuring an unknown cast. It’s his only film as a director though he also acted in Red Zone Cuba and The Hellcats which is one hell of a C.V. The Zodiac Killer (a real life figure who terrorized the San Fransisco area in the late 1960s and early 1970s) inspired a number of films including Dirty Harry, The Exorcist III, and of course Zodiac but The Zodiac Killer was the first to be released. The film has all the distance from its source subject of a shitty Lifetime Original Movie and does not try in the slightest to be a tasteful depiction of the source matter.

A woman is depicted as being randomly stabbed on a street but this has no real connection to the story. Instead, it starts off with telling the story of two people. One of them is a mistreated postman who’s every action is accompanied by some forced facial expression and who takes care of a bunch of rabbits, (the death of one makes him incredibly distraught but otherwise they have minimal impact on anything). He has a perpetually drunk, divorced truck-driving asshole of a friend who wears a ridiculous toupee and who obsesses over hitting on much younger women. The latter is the one who is suspected of the murders first SPOILERS but it doesn’t take a genius to know who the killer is from the moment he shows his face. END OF SPOILERS

First up on the Zodiac’s killing spree is a couple who is making out in a VW bus and are gunned down as they try to run away. The next murder is of a woman who rejected the truck driver and had rabbit stew and a guy she was sharing the car with. Someone writes in claiming the murder of both couples and gives evidence of this, wanting a cypher published in the newspaper. He calls himself “the Zodiac” and signs it with the famous Zodiac Killer symbol. The friend shows up as his ex-wife’s house demanding to see his kid and holding her hostage while the police surround the place SPOILERS before being gunned down in his pool. END OF SPOILERS

It’s not until almost forty minutes in that the killer is revealed (though it was obvious who it was) and the film then leans into it and becomes a full on proto-slasher film. The Zodiac wears a tiny cape and praises a statue in some kind of Satanism influenced ritual, convinced that all those he murders will be his slaves in the next life while the rest of the world will work away on building new pyramids. He then sets off on a rampage.

He ties up and robs another couple before stabbing the husband to death all while wearing a hoodie jacket with his logo on it before calling and reporting his own crime. Next, he shoots out a woman’s tire, starts to change it before murdering her with her own tire, murders a cab driver randomly (as if any of these save maybe one were anything but), kills another man while wearing a fake nose and a wig then cutting off the guy’s ear, stabs to death a hitchhiker, murders a woman by slamming a car hood repeatedly on her head, and finally killing a patient and nearly kills another. All the while the police vainly search for him, even consulting a psychic who is a clear quack and describes the killer almost perfectly wrong.

The film tries to explain away his crimes as being a result of his dad is being kept in a cage in a mental hospital, but it doesn’t really explain anything or tie into anything. Of course, he gets away with it all (that’s kind of dictated by history and in a voice over promises to keep killing (which at the time was a possibility) and brags about how they’ll never catch him (well he’s right).

It really is just a cheap film trying to capitalize on the notability of the killer and lacking any real information about him, just fill it in with every serial killer stereotype they could think of. I quite liked a quick scene set in a lineup that almost recalled The Usual Suspects and there’s a surprising amount of gore and mayhem, but let’s not pretend for a second the film is any good. It’s a cheap work of exploitation but it’s fun to watch none the less.

Next up: South Africa’s House on Willow Street

2017 Full Schedule