"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." – Alfred Hitchcock
If there was ever a person considered the authority on creating terror, that person is Alfred Hitchcock. Widely regarded as the best director of all time, the auteur of suspense has left a lasting impression on cinema and, most notably, helped to shape the DNA of psychological thrillers by meticulously determining the ingredients required for the ultimate thrill.
Famed for films such as Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), Hitchcock had an uncanny understanding of how to get under the skin of his audience. While a lot has changed since those formative years — the genre has spliced into many smaller subgenres, from crime to action — the core principle of suspense remains.
It's understandable why some are put off by the genre. Its essence requires a subtle (or not-so-subtle) exploitation of psychological tricks, and at its most basic form takes the anticipation-of-terror principle to extremes. But that doesn't mean there aren't anomalies for suspense phobics. Due to the genre's evolution, modern thrillers tend to offer a unique approach to evoking fear, with M. Night Shyamalan's Split a prime example.
Compared to other films of its ilk, Split has appealed to wide audiences, evidenced by its impressive box office haul of $273 million against a modest $9 million budget. Split is a film that, thanks to its uniqueness, will appeal to all film lovers, particularly those who may not have previously enjoyed thrillers. Still not convinced? Let's examine the attributes that ensure Split doesn't split opinion.
Split Modernizes Old-School Thrills
The perfect thriller forms a well-crafted, restrained, gradually creeping suspense. Imagine the nerves of the audience like an elastic band being stretched to the limit; the greater the tension, the higher the suspense, the more emphatic the eventual reveal. In addition, two important aspects are toying with the audience's anticipation of what is to come (in response to the threat) and making the payoff worthwhile.
Removing any of these — no real build-up of suspense, revealing too much of the threat too soon, a poor payoff — detracts from the enjoyment of the film. Fortunately, Split delivers on all these fronts, in a unique manner. The film's antagonist Kevin is unlike any seen before. He suffers with severe dissociative identity disorder, manifesting itself in 23 different personalities. A select few of these personalities take control and kidnap three teenage girls, holding them captive in a bizarre, labyrinthian underground complex.
Wasting no time and jumping straight into the action, Kevin (under the personality of "Dennis") kidnaps the trio of Casey, Claire and Marcia within the film's opening scene, allowing Shyamalan to focus on building the mythology of Kevin and his multiple personalities from the get-go. The psychological suspense builds as the victims attempt to pick Kevin's mind like a burglar picking a lock, using words to try to unlock the mental cogs in the hope of finding the right combination to allow their escape.
Building Suspense With An Acting Masterclass
For those who are still unconvinced, although Split is inspired by horror, most of the suspense is built not through jump scares or some form of boogeyman, but through the acting skills of James McAvoy, who gives an inspired performance in the leading role(s). McAvoy flows between contrasting personalities with chilling ease, no easy feat without falling into the trap of histrionics.
Unlike films that rely on an outright evil antagonist or supernatural threat, McAvoy's performance helps to create a nuanced character who becomes the personification of psychological intrigue. Just how does one challenge a threat when the threat lies deep within the psyche of a single man?
McAvoy excels in his scenes with therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), giving glimpses of the vulnerability residing with several of the 23 personalities. Each personality offers a potential breakthrough, from the seemingly rational "Barry," who oversees which personality gets to see "the light," to the vulnerable "Hedwig," the personality of a child who appears to be easily led — if treated right.
Having a range of states within one antagonist also serves another vital purpose: It gives the impression that a resolution is close at all times, which paradoxically increases the peril the young girls face.
A Dark World Carefully Crafted By Shyamalan
Shyamalan, too, deserves recognition for writing and directing Split, which has become one of his most captivating movies. The director, long famed for his twist endings and deception, adds to the suspense intelligently, leaving the sweet spot of intrigue to the viewers' imagination, pacing the film at a rate that builds tension continually while peeling back the layers of Kevin's motivation.
Settings, too, are vital. Split's backdrop — with its secluded, decrepit corridors offering no hope for escape — has a significant impact on the feel of the movie, adding to the sense of claustrophobia that forces the tension at all times. Indeed, this layout could easily reflect the nature of Kevin's mind. Such symbolism would make Hitchcock proud.
All in all, Split is a fine example of an intelligent blend of horror, psychological thrills and suspense, with Shyamalan creating a modern thriller that will appeal to those previously skeptical of the genre. But be warned — Hitchock wasn't always on the money. With Split, the bang is even more terrifying.