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Movie review: Horror and thrills ‘Split’ time in M. Night Shyamalan’s new nightmare

M. Night Shyamalan is causing nightmares again, and he’s even making us laugh amid the dread. But the dread is palpable, and it’s what you’ll remember after watching “Split,” the filmmaker’s latest attempt to scare us silly.

Whether Shyamalan can ever match the intense emotions raised by “The Sixth Sense” is still in question, but after a decade of wondering whether it was safe to see another of his films, the man’s brand is back to its disturbing beginnings. With “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” Shyamalan spent close to a decade winning more Razzies than fans. But with 2015’s creepy-grandparents flick “The Visit,” the first season of Fox’s “Wayward Pines” and his new movie, it appears he’s no longer going to make us fear his movies for the wrong reasons.

The filmmaker is not going to make everyone happy with “Split” from a base level: It’s about a mentally disabled man who abducts young women. There’s more to it than that. But rest assured that actor James McAvoy knows a juicy role when he sees one.

The “X-Men” movies star plays Kevin, who has been diagnosed with 23 distinct personalities by his psychiatrist (an exceptional Betty Buckley), but a couple of domineering ones appear to have taken over. One of those personalities is the fellow we meet early in the film who kidnaps three teens, drugging them and dragging them into some sort of underground facility of rooms and closets, where “Dennis” tells them they’ve been brought for a special purpose. You know, the kind of thing that all serial killers seem to say.

But again, there’s more to it than that. Another of those strong personalities finds McAvoy wearing a dress and heels, addressing the girls as Patricia. Then there’s Hedwig — McAvoy playing a nine-year-old boy trying to stay out of trouble.

Shyamalan orchestrates all of this early dread beautifully, like an uncomfortable symphony, with McAvoy playing all of the parts while shifting in demeanor, posture, accent and more with each new personality. These scared-out-of-their-minds girls know something is planned, but they don’t know what and neither do we. Of course they would like to escape, but with each appearance, they never know which personality they are about to face, which makes a plan difficult.

What deepens the story beyond horror is what we learn of Kevin’s treatment by Dr. Fletcher, with Buckley playing the psychiatrist as a professional who’s as sympathetic to Kevin’s illness as her gym coach was to the needs of Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie” more than 40 years ago. Shyamalan is intrigued by a question he’s asked before: What is the real potential of humanity?

With regard to Kevin and others like him, Dr. Fletcher asks: What if he’s not “less” than the rest of us, as some people would think considering his condition? What if he’s actually “more” than we are and has unlocked parts of the mind’s capabilities?

This “evolution of the species” idea is a very interesting proposition, and so is Shyamalan’s theme about people with “damaged” lives being more pure than those who have never suffered. Both ideas further the spookiness of where Kevin/Dennis/Patricia and friends are headed. Now if only the final act met those intense expectations.

The payoff is surprisingly conventional, which lessens the fear factor. That’s certainly not the fault of Anya Taylor-Joy, the exceptional young actress from “The Witch,” one of last year’s best horror films, who plays the one prisoner with whom Kevin makes a connection. With her giant brown eyes reacting to her captor’s actions and a backstory of her own that ties up nicely in the finale, it’s impossible to take your own eyes off this young talent.

In a nod to the theme of “Split,” this return to form for Shyamalan shows that he continues to evolve as a director. And yes, the filmmaker with a proclivity for end-of-the-movie twists pulls off another one in “Split,” a movie that he also livens up with some odd but entertaining moments of humor. For example, consider the small role in the film he found for himself.

Shyamalan plays “Jai, Hooters lover.” Now there’s a twist. Michael Smith

918-581-8479

michael.smith@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @michaelsmithTW

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