Split Personality, Multiple Personality Disorder or Dissociative Identity Disorder is a condition whose actuality is debated in psychological academia. The theme was massively popularised by the based-on-true-life tv mini-series Sybil (1976), which won an Emmy Award as Best Drama and for its lead actress Sally Field. Split personality became a buzzword – and even featured prominently in the real-life Hollywood Strangler case. On film, split personality has a long history that goes back to the numerous film versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It featured without being named in Psycho (1960), which spawned a genre of copycat psycho-thrillers featuring cross-dressing alters such as Homicidal (1961) and Dressed to Kill (1980). The Other (1972) memorably patented the twist of a character being reacted to on screen as being a personality inside someone’s head. Brian De Palma wrought elaborate variations out of the split personality theme in Sisters (1973) and Raising Cain (1992) and there were such variations as The Love Butcher (1975), Sante Sangre (1989), the absurd Color of Night (1994) and Luster (2010), even a tv series United States of Tara (2009-11). M. Night Shyamalan pioneered a certain type of conceptual reversal twist with The Sixth Sense and a host of films seeking to build on this made a cliche out of The Other trick in pulling back to reveal a character that the protagonist was dealing with was all only in their heads – see the likes of Session 9 (2001), Abandon (2002), High Tension (2003), Identity (2003), Secret Window (2004), Hide and Seek (2005), Martyrs (2008), The Ward (2010), Silent House (2011), House at the End of the Street (2012), Goodnight Mommy (2014) and most memorably Fight Club (1999).
A few years ago, M. Night Shyamalan would have been pressured into building Split up as a big conceptual drama that revealed the existence of characters on screen as alters – maybe something akin to what we had with Identity or Fight Club. Shyamalan is too smart a customer for that and is way ahead of the game. He has taken the brave choice of delineating all of the characters on screen purely via James McAvoy’s acting. The entire film is anchored by James McAvoy who delivers a tour-de-force performance where he goes to town on the role, alternating between a gay fashion designer, a young boy, a stern matriarch, a history professor and the coldly bespectacled, OCD Dennis (although for all it being said that he has twenty-four personalities, we don’t get to see the bulk of them).
Split is in many ways M. Night Shyamalan’s most straightforward film so far. It is essentially an abduction and imprisonment thriller focused around the efforts of the girls to escape and a parallel plot about the psychiatrist’s sessions with McAvoy. In McAvoy’s weird talk about ‘sacred food’ and transformations into The Beast, you are reminded of the killers in the works of Thomas Harris – the Tooth Fairy and his belief that he is going to transform into the Red Dragon in Manhunter (1986), Red Dragon (2002) and Hannibal (2013-5) and the cross-dressing Jaime Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Even within such, Shyamalan is constantly creating something that hints at the fantastic – talk of the mysterious properties of multiple personalities and particularly the ending with the transformed McAvoy climbing around the walls. Shyamalan has a constantly ability in his choice of phrasing or the way scenes are offset from what you expect that constantly keeps us uncertain.
Split doesn’t opt for a big conceptual reversal twist, although Shyamalan does give us an odd coda that [PLOT SPOILERS] reveals an uncredited Bruce Willis sitting at the end of a diner bar listening to the story on a news broadcast. This would seem to be the same character he played in Unbreakable, something confirmed by Shyamalan. Audiences have reacted divisively to this, variously calling it a lame variant on Shyamalan’s big surprise twist and a clever piece of universe threading continuity. To be fair to Shyamalan, it is not intended as a big conceptual reversal twist, more in the way Marvel Comics movies stuff surprise scenes in during the end credits to tease for forthcoming films. As such, Shyamalan has stated that McAvoy’s character was originally part of the script for Unbreakable and he will be revisiting the Unbreakable universe and having both Willis and McAvoy’s characters meet up. In the kitchen sink superhero realism that Unbreakable works on, you can see that McAvoy would become a super-villain, something akin to an ordinary everyday version of The Incredible Hulk.
Jason Blum has also produced a number of other genre films including:- Hamlet (2000), Paranormal Activity (2007) and sequels, Insidious (2010) and sequel, Tooth Fairy (2010), The Bay (2012), The Lords of Salem (2012), The River (tv series, 2012), Sinister (2012) and sequel, Dark Skies (2013), Oculus (2013), The Purge (2013) and sequel, the tv mini-series Ascension (2014), Creep (2014), Jessabelle (2014), Mercy (2014), Mockingbird (2014), Not Safe for Work (2014), Ouija (2014) and sequel, 13 Sins (2014), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), Unfriended/Cybernatural (2014), Area 51 (2015), The Boy Next Door (2015), The Gallows (2015), The Gift (2015), Jem and the Holograms (2015), The Lazarus Effect (2015), Martyrs (2015), Visions (2015), The Visit (2015), The Darkness (2016), Hush (2016), Incarnate (2016), The Veil (2016), Viral (2016), Amityville: The Reawakening (2017), Get Out (2017) and Stephanie (2017).