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Review of SPLIT (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No, no, no
2016, 117 min., Color
Horror-thriller
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, and some language
Universal Pictures
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is a solid thriller right up until the end, when the director decides to play to his fans and his own indulgences, rather than tying things up for viewers in a more satisfying way. But using the reverse situation of Panic Room, Shyamalan manages to put characters in jeopardy and keep them there for the duration of an otherwise tense and effective film.

Split is obviously inspired by the sordid news story out of Cleveland, where three young women were held captive in a basement by Ariel Castro. The bus driver had targeted two of them because they were friends with his daughter. The women were raped and tortured in captivity for more than a decade before their miraculous rescue.

Rather than tell that story, Shyamalan wisely chooses to stay clear of extremes and instead create a PG-13 thriller that teens can watch—a cautionary tale that reminds them it’s not just “stranger danger” that poses a problem. It can be something as innocent as a party, where the girl’s father offers to drive two of her friends and a “pity invite” home, with the girl’s approval. Instead of a sex-driven abductor, Shyamalan offers a less tawdry and more interesting alternative: a captor who has multiple personalities. The most sexual the film gets is when we learn that one personality “likes to watch young girls dance naked,” but in another wise move the director avoids nudity and instead has one of the girls spend part of the film without a top (wearing only a bra) and another without pants (wearing only panties).

If this 2016 film were a TV series it would probably be called The James McAvoy Show. The Golden Globe nominee (Atonement, 2007) gives a tour de force performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb . . . and Dennis, and Patricia, and Hedwig, and Barry, and Orwell, and Jade—seven of the 23 distinct personalities that share the same body. As he goes from character to character you can even see a believable transformation in his facial features—not just the expression, but the way his face looks.

Medically speaking, Kevin suffers from a dissociative identity disorder triggered by childhood abuse. Among his distinct personalities is a nine-year-old boy, a man who dresses like a woman, a rational-sounding fellow who controls which personality gets to “go into the light” (i.e., surface), and an OCD man with a voyeuristic fetish. Kevin has been seeing a psychiatrist to help him with his problem, and the sequences with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley)—therapy sessions augmented by TV interviews and conference presentations by the well-known expert—do a fine job of educating viewers without seeming pedantic.

All of the young women who play kidnapped victims do so convincingly, but Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula knew when they signed on that the featured performer would be Anya Taylor-Joy—the “pity invite” who sticks to herself and really doesn’t have many friends. We see flashbacks from her childhood as she is taught how to hunt by her father (Neal Huff) and how she was abused by a pervy uncle (Brad William Henke). All of that sets up the possibility of an interesting captive versus captor showdown. Whether it materializes is another story, and I won’t say anything more about that or the rest of the plot. Like many thrillers, you just can’t think too much about the plot, or else you’ll wonder things like why, with such a high-profile kidnapping, wouldn’t the father have emerged very early as a suspect, or why the expert, who clearly suspects something, doesn’t go to the police. I mean, how far does doctor-patient confidentiality extend?

Shyamalan has been a consistently inconsistent filmmaker. He can make a wonderful thriller like The Sixth Sense (1999), which earned six Oscar nominations, or he can crank out a turkey like The Last Airbender (2010), which earned the scorn of critics and a measly 6 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Where does Split fall? It’s slightly better than Unbreakable (2000) and much better than his 2015 campy horror-thriller The Visit. But it’s every bit a PG-13 movie, mostly for violence and disturbing images. Teens will enjoy it, but it’s not recommended for younger viewers.

Language: Minor cursing
Sex: Implied abuse, nothing graphic shown
Violence: One extreme close-up of arms crushing a woman, others dragged by the feet off-camera, wounded body parts, and exposed organs
Adult situations: That would be pretty much the entire film
Takeaway: Shyamalan makes a lot of winners and losers; despite the ending, this one’s a winner

LIGHTS OUT (Blu-ray)

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lightsoutcoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 81 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material, and brief drug content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D (deleted scenes only)
Trailer
Amazon link

I can’t explain why teenage girls like horror-thriller movies so much, but I can tell you that the two who watched Lights Out with me were satisfyingly scared. This 2016 film won’t ever be considered top-fright entertainment, yet it manages to play the genre game fairly well.

At the heart of all horror-thriller films is this simple concept: It’s HERE! No it’s not. It’s HERE! No it’s not. It’s HE—AHHHHH! Usually there’s a build-up of tension before the release, but present-day horror-thriller dabblers don’t seem interested in that or anything else besides the simple formula for scaring people.

lightsoutscreen1Lights Out is based on a short film by director David F. Sandberg, but the expansion to feature-length film doesn’t include any simmering set-up. We’re thrown right into a horror situation and then, like people corralled in a dark room, we’re subjected to the “It’s HERE” nope “It’s HERE” jumpfest—one that’s milked for all it’s worth with the addition of loud musical cues. One of the girls gave it an A-, while the other thought it a B-. Either way, both girls said they’d watch it again—and hopefully understand more about what was going on.

I doubt it. Without sliding too deeply into spoiler territory, let me just say that there isn’t a satisfactory explanation for the horror phenomenon that haunts this film, primarily because the apparition itself inexplicably changes. One minute it’s substantive, and the next minute it’s more wispy—kind of like the ending, which seems to make sense unless you think too much about it. That holds true for the beginning, too.

lightsoutscreen2What does that leave you with? The formula, of course. In this variation, when the lights go out (and sometimes they go out as a result of the horror phenomenon) an apparition appears and seeks to harm people. It’s not just anybody that the apparition targets, either. It’s a particular family. Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) moved away from her mother (Maria Bello) and much younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), in order to stay sane. You see, the mother talks to an imaginary person and is chronically depressed. So why is young Martin still living with her? Good question, and another one that’s never answered. All that matters is that Martin freaks out when the lights turn off and he starts seeing this apparition . . . as his older sister once did. Who is it? What is it? What is it after? Those are the questions that are never fully answered, but which drive this horror-thriller all the same.

If all you require of a horror-thriller is that it scares you, then Lights Out does the trick. If you need it to make complete sense, well . . . it’s NOT HERE! But hey, that’s the world of the supernatural. As with magic, do you really want to know everything?

Sex: People in bed after implied coupling, but nothing shown
Language: A few “shit”s and that’s about all I remember
Violence: Clawing, choking, dragging people into darkness
Adult situations: A phenomenon tries to hurt or kill people, and one death with blood is shown, while others are off-screen; a character also commits suicide
Takeaway: When the formula works, it works