M. Night Shyamalan Makes a Comeback with Fun, Scary Multiple-Personality Horror Movie Split

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Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a brilliant psychiatrist whose common sense seems to have dozed off on the sofa, isn’t overly alarmed that several of the 23 personalities residing within a patient named Kevin (James McAvoy) are conspiring to usher in No. 24.

She’s alert enough to suspect out that “Barry,” Kevin’s fashion-designer persona, is in fact not Kevin being “Barry” but one of his other personalities impersonating “Barry” — which is why he keeps coming around to her office and presenting her with sketches that don’t display quite his usual flair. Unfortunately, she’s preoccupied with snagging an appearance at a prestigious research conference over in Paris: She wants to present data proving that Kevin’s body chemistry responds to and changes depending on which of the 23 personalities he happens to be stuck with on any particular day or given moment.

Which brings us back to No. 24, the monster that looms over Split, director M. Night Shyamalan’s fun-scary horror-thriller.

Called the Beast by the nasty little cabal whispering inside Kevin’s brain, he’ll cause the poor man to morph into something beyond basic human biology — the sort of dark-overlord thing that writer H.P. Lovecraft imagined with such sick fondness.

First, though, he demands protein-boosting human sacrifice, which is why “Dennis,” Kevin’s take-charge personality, abducts three teenage girls and locks them behind two doors in a basement. He is an implosively tense character who looks something like Bryan Cranston and sounds something like Dustin Hoffman, which isn’t a pleasant combination. There’s also the governessy “Patricia,” popping in from time to time like Satan’s parody of Julie Andrews, to maintain order, and the pathetic but mischievous “Hedwig,” who says he’s 9 years old and is apt to throw rules out the window.

Director Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) really gets his mitts on you with this one: It’s wild and suspenseful, and without his trademark trick of pulling the rug out from under you at the end with such a vigorous tug that you end up on your backside and not terribly amused. (Split does have a fun little kick at the end, though.)

The whole thing hangs on McAvoy, who changes personalities as effortlessly as a centipede shifting weight from one foot to another. You wouldn’t say the performance is realistic — how could it be? — but it’s believable, and coherent, and McAvoy seems to having so much fun you wouldn’t care if Kevin developed a 25th and 26th personality who were identical twins. Because McAvoy would figure out how to make them work, too.

But Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), one of the captives, holds her own just by being sad-eyed and still. She nearly steals Split from all those McAvoys.

My main problem is that I keep wanting to call the movie Spilt, as if it were about a man knocking over 24 glasses of milk.

(In theaters Jan. 20, PG-13)

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