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A look at M. Night Shyamalan’s recent film and the genre surrounding it

There are many things that could be discussed about Split, the newest release from divisive director, M. Night Shyamalan. It could be considered as a return to form for him or as an empathetic—yet still problematic—portrayal of DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder). Instead, I’d like to consider it in context of other recent horror films—It Follows, Green Room, The VVitch, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Don’t Breathe—to examine this contemporary horror movement, which I’ll call, for simplicity, the “escape thriller.”

The above horror films are not necessarily the best or the highest grossing, and are only taken from mainstream American cinema, but they share similar themes and fears, revealing a larger cultural interest. Escape thrillers might be what monster movies were for the ‘30s, or supernatural horrors were for the ‘70s, and slashers were for the ‘80s; that is, a subgenre of horror based on contemporary issues and fears. In our case, it’s the fear of oppression and trauma at the hands of societal institutions.

Formally, escape thrillers can be categorized by clean and controlled cinematography, distancing the audience from their often graphic violence; <i>Split<i> restricts its gore to a few jarring moments. It uses sound for thematic interludes, as do most of the other escape thrillers. They draw as heavily from the thriller genre as they do from that of horror.

Escape thrillers work on the premise of simulating the feeling of being trapped. Unlike other horror houses which are supernatural or part of the home-invasion subgenre, escape thrillers are about getting out of someone else’s house. The heroes are either captured, or enter freely—although they are often pressured by societal forces. Split’s characters are taken against their will, with an extra mystery of wondering why they’ve been locked up in a basement. There’s room for creativity though, as in The VVitch, where the hero’s trapped on a farm, or in It Follows, which expands the “house” to an entire neighbourhood in Detroit.

The protagonists are all young, white women, barring Green Room’s Anton Yelchin. Anya Taylor-Joy fills this role in Split, as well as in The VVitch. In this aspect, escape thrillers don’t differ from the genre’s long history of the “Final Girl,” but what does separate them is their readiness to criticize this cliché. At a minimum, they call attention to the hero’s gender. At the most, the entire movie revolves around a woman’s sexuality.

These women are all in conflict with a villain—almost always a white man. But escape thrillers distinguish themselves in this aspect; these are not serial killers, aliens, or supernatural beings, but people grounded in realism. When there are elements of the supernatural, they’re always couched in social commentary and psychology—It Follows’ villain takes on the form of a father. Split’s villain is sympathetic through a brilliant performance by James McAvoy, but the portrayal is nonetheless ableist, which does nothing to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness. Strangely, this happens in two other escape thrillers as well—Don’t Breathe and 10 Cloverfield Lane.

It is in the escape horror genre’s villains and through the serious empathetic tone that cultural fears come to light. The protagonists often have histories of abuse and the confinement by father-like figures in homes which are not their own is not a coincidence—I think these films play on our fear of sites of oppression. Escape thrillers call attention to the possibly repressive nature of institutions, realized in the form of a man—whether it is the institution of sex education (It Follows), the military (Don’t Breathe), colonialism (The VVitch), medical care (Split), or entertainment (Green Room). They highlight the fact that we, along with the protagonist, feel trapped in the “houses” of these sites, and that the only way out is to fight back or try to outsmart them.

Although escape thrillers, and horror films in general, hide their ideology behind narrative tension, their popularity reveals something about their appeal. Often without realizing it, we encounter a fear drawn from contemporary society. Horror films allow us to confront that fear and begin to work through it. They let us ask, “what are we truly afraid of?”