By Maria Lewis

Arguably there has never been a more divisive figure in horror filmmaking than M. Night Shyamalan. Heck, even calling him a “horror filmmaker” is cause for argument given that his body of work has ranged from high-concept thrillers (Unbreakable and Signs) to science fiction blockbusters (The Last Airbender and After Earth). Yet when you look at the consistent thread that runs through his work – especially in his most famous film, The Sixth Sense – a horror filmmaker is what he is. After becoming the butt of every Hollywood joke following a string of critical and commercial flops (Lady In The Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth), Shyamalan has officially done what people in showbusiness love the most: he has made a comeback.

Mind you, even when he fell out of favour, it’s important to note that the Indian-American filmmaker never stopped working. Not even when Mark Wahlberg battled insidious plant life. Shyamalan brushed himself off and moved on to the next project. The first sign that he was back on track was in 2015 with the TV series, Wayward Pines, which might have been a little shaky on the dismount, but otherwise performed a pretty impressive acrobatic feat on the small screen. That same year, he teamed up with horror-preneur Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions for The Visit, a twist on the classic Hansel & Gretel tale. It was decidedly more low-key for Shyamalan – and more low budget – and felt like a return to form as he dipped his toes back into the murky waters of high-stakes moviemaking.

Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula in Split

Now he has delivered Split which, by all accounts, has become a huge success for both Shyamalan and Blumhouse (who he teamed up with again). On a tiny $9 million budget, it debuted at No.1 at the US box office and worldwide has already crossed the coveted $100 million threshold – all within its first few weeks of release. Audiences, it seems, are back on the Shy train, and so too are the critics.

The film – which toes that line between thriller and horror – is currently his equal-second best reviewed film, sitting at 74% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (the same score as Signs, yet behind The Sixth Sense’s 84% and slightly ahead of Unbreakable’s 68%). Yet it hasn’t pleased everyone, with the movie’s plot causing a major outcry from mental health advocacy groups who have taken issue with the character of Kevin, played by James McAvoy, who suffers from DID (dissociative identity disorder). While McAvoy’s performance has been praised, the idea of Kevin – who is just one of 23 personalities living within the same body – has even caused some to start a petition to boycott the film. You see, not all of Kevin’s personalities are nice – a few of them have a hand in abducting three teenage girls and holding them hostage in his basement. And that’s just the beginning.

James McAvoy and Betty Buckley in Split

Split is by no means the first horror film to portray someone with DID as a tormented killer – Psycho is the most famous – it’s just the latest. Outside of the genre, characters with DID have featured in everything from Fight Club to Me, Myself And Irene, yet nothing has been quite as divisive as Split. Already the petition to boycott the film for its “backwards representations of gender identity and mental illness” on Care2 has over 22,000 of the 25,000 signatures needed.

Australian mental health group, SANE, has publicly condemned the film after receiving dozens of complaints, with SANE’s Jack Heath telling the ABC that “films like this are going to reinforce a false stereotypical notion that people living with complex mental illnesses are inherently dangerous and violent.” It’s understandable, yet there are other damaging representations in the film that need to be examined also.

Anya Taylor Joy in Split

Of a small cast, Split has four main female characters – the three abducted teenage girls previously mentioned and a psychiatrist played by Betty Buckley. Already the premise of teenage girls being abducted by a man with mysterious motives is falling into horror movie cliché territory given that we’ve seen masked mad men slice and dice teenage girls in slashers for the past forty odd years. Yawn. It’s boring, it’s played out, and one surviving Final Girl isn’t enough to flip the ingrained sexism built into the subgenre on its head.

And yet…three teenage girls locked in a basement is what we have. And slowly – spoilers ahead – items of clothing begin to get stripped away from each of the characters throughout the course of the film thanks to the villain’s “OCD” tendencies. First, it’s the “dusty” shirt of one teen, leaving her in a white lacy bra and mini-skirt. Then it’s the “dirty” skirt of another, leaving her to spend the rest of the movie fighting for her life in her panties. The third teen’s clothing keeps getting stripped only to reveal the many layers that she has on underneath – much to the antagonist’s frustration. How are we going for “ick” factor yet? Nearly there? It’s mentioned that one of Kevin’s personalities – Dennis – has a perversion for watching teenage girls dance naked, yet it never feels like his perversion. It adds nothing to the story or his menace as a character, and the women – who were already in a vulnerable position – don’t feel any more so. In fact, as the camera lingers on the semi-nude, trembling bodies, it feels entirely and utterly unnecessary. It feels exploitative.
Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula and James McAvoy in Split
Of the four women that we’re presented with, the two that are stripped of their clothing have the most horrible deaths. The poor doctor dies via a, erm, loving embrace if you will. The Final Girl, meanwhile, pushes on towards her tropey conclusion only to have her last shirt removed to reveal her bare midriff and shoulders all marked with a collage of scars. As Kevin says, these are the marks of someone who has suffered. We as the audience know this, as through the course of the film we’ve had to endure the flashbacks of this particular character’s childhood, which reveals that she has been sexually abused by her uncle – her primary caretaker – for what seems to be close to a decade.
Like the bodies of the teenage girls that it shuffles to the foreground, this too feels incredibly exploitive. It’s shown in significant detail, and is reiterated over and over again throughout the course of the movie when it simply could have been implied – if you had to have a girl’s sexual assault backstory in there at all. And that’s a big if. Women who have survived the horror of sexual assault and sexual abuse – whether that’s from a stranger or a loved one – are heroes and true survivors. Everyone knows that. Yet the question is why is it the mistreatment of a teenage girl’s sexuality the thing that – ultimately – makes Kevin keep her alive after he has already brutally killed the other two who were, as he describes, “soft”? Split has a lot of problems as a movie. As a filmmaker, Shyamalan has set out to terrify audiences with his signature blend of twists and turns. Instead, the most terrifying thing about Split is its outdated stereotypes – from the depiction of mental illness to the sexualisation of teenage girls.
Maria Lewis is a journalist and author who can be seen on The Feed, weeknights on SBS Viceland. She’s the presenter and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. Her debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released in 2016, with the sequel – Who’s Afraid Too? – due for release on January 17, 2017. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz.
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