M. Night Shyamalan’s second low-budget horror feature in two years has officially solidified his directorial comeback in the only way that matters — the box office.
Split, which stars indie darling Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as “the last girl standing” and James McAvoy as a man with 23 distinct personalities (plus a bonus one, which is the scariest one!), is Shyamalan’s first feature to hold the number-one box office spot for three weekends in a row since The Sixth Sense in 1999. Recouping a $9 million budget, the film has already brought in $99 million domestically, for a global total of $142 million.
This win follows Shyamalan’s critically acclaimed 2015 horror film The Visit, which brought in a global total of $98 million on a $5 million budget. At this point, it looks like Shyamalan has finally sprung himself from the director’s jail he backed himself into after a series of highly public missteps: plagiarism feuds over his 2004 film The Village, a box office flop with Lady in the Water in 2006, and utter humiliation in 2010 with a sloppy, whitewashed The Last Airbender adaptation that was disavowed by the creators of the original series. At one point, his name was so derided that audiences booed when his credit turned up in the trailer for Devil. But now he’s back, baby!
As Vulture points out, Split isn’t just a home run for Shyamalan. It’s also the highest-grossing horror movie since The Conjuring in 2013. It’s hard to say what made it such an appealing proposition for moviegoers, since it’s not the ideal time of year to release a horror movie, nor is James McAvoy a star with proven box office power outside the X-Men ensemble. (Are there really that many Atonement stans? If so, shoot me an email!)
Universal’s heavy marketing push for Split certainly didn’t hurt. Both The Visit and Split were produced at low cost by indie studios Blinding Edge (Shyamalan’s own production company) and Blumhouse (Paranormal Activity, Whiplash), as a way for Shyamalan to get his feet back under him. Both were distributed by Universal, but there seemed to be significantly more cash behind the marketing campaign this time around. Ubiquitous TV and social media spots plagued our every waking moment, with solid results — 52 percent of Split’s audience was under 25, according to IndieWire. But the movie’s twist was likely a big factor as well.
In lieu of a plot twist directly related to… the plot, Split’s contribution to the roster of famous Shyamalan bait and switches is that it exists in the same world as his 2000 film Unbreakable, a Bruce Willis / Samuel L. Jackson star vehicle with a devoted following. Split ends with a surprise appearance from Willis’ Unbreakable character David Dunn, which makes Split antagonist Kevin (now also called “The Horde”) a villain who could apparently go up against David at some point within that universe. This connection is irrelevant to the way the film plays out, but it’s still a fun bit of gossip that likely improved word-of-mouth-related ticket sales. (IndieWire notes that sales rose 12 percent from Friday to Saturday during opening weekend.) In a recent interview with io9, Shyamalan said Kevin is a character taken from Unbreakable’s cutting-room floor, and that he always meant Split to be a disguised villain origin story, a way of surprising fans who had been begging for a sequel for years. “I had about 15 to 20 pages written [focusing on Kevin],” he told io9, “and those scenes are all in [Split].” For whatever reason, people are constantly hungering to find out that stories they love are laced together in a never-ending spider web of pink teddy bears, pig monsters, and Vincent Vega-s. All human beings are paranoid conspiracy theorists!
I have an 11 page outline for my next film in my bag. I can't tell you what it is, but If you've seen #Split...— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) February 4, 2017
At this point, the reaction to the twist has been positive enough to inspire confidence in the notion of an Unbreakable trilogy. Shyamalan tweeted on Saturday that his next movie is in the outline phase, and strongly hinted that it would be the next installment in the Unbreakable saga. It’s not totally clear whether anyone was clamoring for a Shyamalan cinematic universe before, but it looks like we’re getting one now. Hopefully he figures out a way to resolve all his cameos from his other films (“I’m a veterinarian! A park ranger! A drug dealer! A world-changing writer!”) into one character. He could be a restless job-hopper, or maybe he could be Kevin’s sidekick, The Horder. They could compare spare personalities in between fighting supervillain battles. Or they could call their representatives in Congress many, many times to express varied political opinions. Just some free ideas here!
Anyway, congratulations to M. Night, who is decidedly back.