There are a lot of negative things that you can say about 2017. In the future, when historians look back of the second decade of the 21st century, I imagine that they will point to 2017 as being one of the worst years in American history. The country is divided. The world seems like a scary and dangerous place. The outlook for the future feels bleak. It’s not so much that people are angry. Instead, it’s that there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for all the anger. It’s difficult to imagine that the differences that currently divide the world are ever going to be resolved.
However, there is one thing that can be said about 2017. It’s been a very good year for horror cinema.
Sure, there have been a few less-than-perfect films. Rings left most people disappointed. Does anyone remember The Bye Bye Man or have we said farewell to the memories of that unfortunate film? While The Dark Tower was never specifically a horror movie, it’s still not easy to think of any other Stephen King adaptation that has been greeted with such indifference. The less said about Tom Cruise’s The Mummy, the better.
But even with all that in mind, there have been some truly outstanding horror movies released this year. Movies like Get Out, It, and The Belko Experiment will be well-remembered long after the more “traditional” films of 2017 have faded from the collective memory. I would go as far as to argue that David Lynch’s revival of Twin Peaks should itself be considered an 18-hour horror movie. Maybe it is because the world seems like such a dark place right now. Maybe, at this point, horror movies are the only movies that accurately reflect the way many people are feeling about the present and the future. For whatever reason, 2017 has been a great year for horror.
Really, we wouldn’t be surprised. Way back in January, things got off to a good start with the release of Split. Split was a film that not many people were expecting to be impressive. Just consider: the film was coming out in January, which is when the worst films are usually released. (The theory is that everyone’s too busy with the Oscars to notice that studios are desperately trying to write off all of the losers that they misguidedly greenlit for production the previous year.) Split was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a formerly respected director whose last few films had been disappointing. Finally, the film’s plot just didn’t sound that good: James McAvoy plays a man with multiple personalities who kidnaps three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) and holds them captive. Throughout the film, McAvoy cycles through his different personalities and the girls try to find a way to escape before McAvoy turns into the Beast.
And yet somehow, Split works. It’s a genuinely scary and unsettling film, one that left me feeling paranoid for days after I watched it. From the minute that the film started, it grabbed hold of me and it did not let go for two hours. I watched the movie and I wondered what would happen if I ever found myself in the same situation as the kidnapped girls. Would I be able to survive? Would I be able to escape? Or would I just be another victim of the Beast? It’s a deeply frightening film, one that feels like a waking nightmare at its most intense.
Obviously, a lot of credit has to go to James McAvoy, who is brilliant in a role that would have brought out the worst instincts in a lesser actor. It’s a showy role and there had to be considerable temptation to go overboard. And there are a few times when McAvoy embraces the more theatrical possibilities of the role. However, in his best scenes, McAvoy is surprisingly subtle. Yes, he does a lot of different voices. Yes, his body language alters from personality to personality. But McAvoy is at his best when he just allows his facial expression to subtly suggest that he has turned into someone else. McAvoy is frightening but, at times, he’s also rather pathetic. Whenever McAvoy shows up, you never know what he’s going to do. He keeps you off-balance.
As good as McAvoy is, M. Night Shyamalan also deserves a lot of credit for Split. For a film about a man with 23 warring personalities, Split is refreshingly direct and straight forward. There’s none of the cloying cleverness that cheapened some of Shyamalan’s other films. Instead, Split is simply a good, scary film for a really scary world.