SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Glass. Proceed at your own risk.
When M. Night Shyamalan unleashed Split onto the world in 2016, he loosed a monstrous new villain that knocked audiences for six. In the first of a new series called ‘Slice and Dice’, we dissect one of the Beast‘s key scenes from Split, with help from M. Night Shyamalan himself. You can watch the director’s exclusive scene commentary in the video directly below, and his thoughts on Glass in a separate video further down.
The scene in question comes in the film’s final act when we witness the Beast’s first kill; the moment a modus operandi is established as he crushes Betty Buckley’s Dr Fletcher to death using his ‘anaconda’ grip. We eventually see him repeat this technique in Glass, early on, when James McAvoy’s antagonist finally comes face to face with Bruce Willis’s unbreakable superhero, David Dunn, and then again later in a starkly contrasting confrontation with a hospital orderly.
With the Beast one of Shyamalan’s most complex screen creations and pivotal to Glass, the final piece of Shyamalan’s Eastrail 177 trilogy puzzle, this timely scene breakdown helps us to understand both who he is and the role he plays in the overarching superhero/villain story. It also provides proof that Shyamalan — who’s had varying degrees of success in his directing career — is at his best when he’s dabbling in horror. We look at Shyamalan’s horror credentials, his masterful construction of the scene itself and how he increases its impact in the moments leading up to it, and why it’s so significant.
Shyamalan as Horror Maestro
Coming hot on the heels of Shyamalan’s most profitable film ever at that point in time — 2015’s modestly budgeted The Visit, which made $98.5 million at the global box office on its tiny $5 million, Split’s punch was all the more powerful. The Visit marked Shyamalan’s first sojourn into horror since his breakthrough supernatural chiller The Sixth Sense in 1999, and its success laid claim to the notion that horror is where Shyamalan’s strength lies, following a string of flops setting foot in other genres. Audiences were excited for Split, and its success cemented his reputation as a major player when it comes to scary movies.
A captivity horror with (of course) a twist, the film marked Shyamalan’s third in the genre. Of course, by the end credits, it’s clear that Split is a comic-book movie dressed in (genuinely unsettling) horror clothing; a stealth sequel to Unbreakable — his lukewarmly received superhero offering from 2000 that has since garnered a cult following.
While Split proved a hit both critically (scoring 76% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer) and commercially, it appalled some viewers, however. Such was the strength of feeling towards Shyamalan’s on-screen portrayal of the real-life condition known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) with Shyamalan’s antagonist, whose original identity is Kevin Wendell Crumb, having to contend with 23 alternate personalities.
Of course, no horror film worth its salt is without controversy. And if there’s any doubt that Split is a significant addition to horror’s annals, you’d do well to consider a classic it’s clearly influenced by — Psycho. Just as Split was taken to task for its potentially damaging look at DID, Psycho — another film featuring an antagonist with the condition — also faced dissent for its split personality ‘gender-bending’. In Hitchcock’s influential pic, Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates identifies as his deceased mother when he kills. Though people weren’t necessarily up in arms for the same reasons back then.
Split’s similarities with Psycho don’t end there, and, like Norman Bates, the Beast’s story is a captivating one, unfurling as it does throughout the film via James McAvoy’s character Kevin and his various personalities. Three of whom make up an entity known as the Horde, working in collusion to support the Beast’s vision, which is to cleanse the world of the ‘impure’ making way for the ‘pure’ to inherit the earth. A sentiment, incidentally, that creator M Night Shyamalan tells us he identifies with, adding weight to the notion that the Beast is arguably one of cinema’s more complex villains of recent years.
Shower Scene Parallels
It’s surely no accident that elements of the Split scene are reminiscent of Psycho’s shower scene. Just as the Split sequence begins with Dr Fletcher writing, so the famous Psycho scene starts with Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane doing the same. Shyamalan’s kill sequence also mirrors Hitchcock’s in the way it’s shot and edited. The director describes the “jagged”, fragmentary nature of Fletcher’s death as he cuts from her face, to the Beast’s arms around her middle, back to her face, which repeats with a couple of additional angles thrown in.
This is similar to the way Alfred Hitchcock put the shower scene together. In aligning the scene with this classic sequence, Shyamalan is drawing parallels between his character and Norman Bates, helping us to understand his antagonist’s motives, and condition, a little more clearly by also making us think about the differences between the two. It’s highly likely that Shyamalan’s inclusion of female-identifying personalities is another deliberate reference to Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece.
The shower scene is the defining element of Psycho. Similarly, the moment the Beast is finally fully revealed serves as the pivotal point in Split. Indeed, it’s perhaps Shyamalan’s most significant scene, not only in its establishment of a truly unique MO for one of the modern era’s most complex and intriguing villains, but also in what it says about the Beast’s psychology. More importantly, it’s proof of Shyamalan’s credentials as a modern master of horror — in the sequence’s craftsmanship as well as in the way it impacts following the film’s smartly measured tension-ramping efforts.
Socially On Point
For Shyamalan, the Beast is an avenging angel. “In a way that is definitely close to my heart,” says Shyamalan. “That idea of defending those that have been damaged and not letting people put you down because of the stuff that you’ve gone through.”
It’s a timely sentiment; one that resonates with oppressed ‘minorities’, survivors of abuse and, indeed, people who simply don’t ‘fit the mould’; many of whom, in the advent of social media, have taken to the internet’s various platforms to make their voices heard. Though, of course, there’s a flip side to the Beast’s honourable starting point, and that’s the kidnapping and murder — by EATING ALIVE, no less — of young women he deems to be privileged, to have never suffered, and therefore “impure”. There’s no question that the Beast, and by extension the Horde and Kevin, is an extremely complex antagonist.
A Quiet Death
Dr Fletcher’s death scene in Split is critical to understanding the Beast, and plays a key role in setting him up as not only a formidable villain for the film’s climax and the next instalment but also in laying bare his motives and both answering and raising questions about his psychology and origins. Leaving him ripe for further exploration in Glass.
The Beast does not brutally kill Fletcher; indeed, Shyamalan describes it as a “quiet” death. Kevin’s 23rd personality — born partially out of the zoo animals Kevin works in close proximity to — reserves his more gruesome method of killing, eating alive, for the “impure”. It’s as if in eating their flesh, he’s processing their impurities through his “pure” body; aka a body that has suffered. Fletcher isn’t deemed impure and is therefore not worthy, or in need of, consumption. But her death is still necessary because her usefulness has expired, she’s expressed a lack of belief in his vision, and she now stands in the Beast’s way. He’s nothing if not single-minded. His snake-like constriction method of murder is, by contrast, efficient and bloodless. The Beast is a character that kills out of necessity, according to the skewed logic of a (super)villain.
When he strikes again in the same way in Glass for the first time, it’s against David Dunn, and it’s interesting to compare the two scenes. The Split scene serves to show us the helplessness of his victim, and the ease and relative effortlessness of the dispatch, while the scene in Glass — which the trailer gives a glimpse of — is a different kettle of fish. The indestructible Dunn finds it difficult to escape the Beast’s strong grip — he’s really, really strong — but is far from helpless in the situation. Hence, we’re given an insight into the match the Beast has met in Dunn, who in Glass is given the superhero moniker, the Overseer. And if we’re in any doubt as to the Beast’s brute strength and the extent of his animalistic characteristics, they’re underscored once more towards the end of the film when he uses the same technique again to kill another non-super character. Shyamalan discusses the Beast versus David Dunn scene in the video above.
Building Up to the Reveal
Up to the point in the film where Dr Fletcher’s death scene occurs, we’ve only been able to piece together information about the Beast from snippets offered by the other personalities. Most recently, as we go into the kill scene, we’ve learned from Dennis that “the Beast is a sentient creature who represents the highest form of humans’ evolution; he believes the time of ordinary humanity is over.” Dennis disconcertingly tells Casey: ”I hope this makes you feel calm; you will be in the presence of something greater,” as he prepares her for her imminent death.
The Beast has been an invisible but tangible menace looming since the start, as Shyamalan has expertly ratcheted up the tension, and shaped our expectations. By the time the Beast eventually appears here, Shyamalan has crafted such a fearsome picture of him that we’re itching — and simultaneously disinclined — to see him fulfill it.
Shyamalan deftly employs parallel editing to build the tension to almost unbearable limits ahead of the Beast’s reveal, marking the eventual unveiling as pretty darn important. We witness the Beast’s emergence in a preceding sequence through the half-light on board an empty train — MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT — and it’s a nod towards the revelation in Glass that Kevin’s father was killed in the train crash orchestrated by Mr Glass that David Dunn walked away from unscathed in Unbreakable.
John Carpenter Tactics
As the scene starts, Dr Fletcher, occupying most of the frame, scrawls a note in the foreground — the contents of which we can’t see — leaving space to her left and right that’s aching to be filled. It’s classic John Carpenter framing (see the Halloween clip above), and the blurred figure of the Beast bounds into the room screen left and exits the frame as quickly as he appears, screen right. Fletcher looks over her right shoulder, but he’s already gone.
It cuts to the out-of-focus, Beast-eye-view shot that Shyamalan mentions in his scene breakdown. The director is conveying the character’s animalistic qualities here and suggests he’s hunting her. As the camera switches to Fletcher’s point of view, Shyamalan aligns the two characters, in showing her vision as blurred too, as she struggles to shake off the effects of the drug. But while they might currently see the same way, the Beast’s senses and instincts are sharpened; Fletcher’s deadened. She still has a survival instinct, of course, and the fight in her to both pick up the fruit knife on the table and ultimately use it against him.
As she staggers, seemingly obliviously, closer to him, she comes into focus, his vision adjusts as his prey stands in front of him; his senses at peak alertness. Fletcher’s face conveys fear, abject terror even, as she realises what she’s up against. We still haven’t seen the Beast properly yet, but we already identify with her horror. Her reaction prepares us for the reveal — which comes in the very next shot, a close-up on his torso and lower half of his face. He’s dehumanised in this instant; the pulsating veins of a human, yet somehow also inhuman, predator are all we take in. Tonight is the night that he and the Horde have been building towards, when he will consume his prey — the three girls — and he’s ready to strike. Starting with Dr Fletcher.
He exhales/growls heavily before saying in a deep, beastly voice: “Thank you, for helping us till now.”
Avoiding the Supernatural
For Shyamalan, this moment is meant to be grounded. The director wanted to avoid the idea that anything supernatural is happening here, as might be the case in standard superhero fare, and he succeeds. By keeping the focus on Dr Fletcher — specifically her face — and using “inserts” to depict her “quiet” yet harrowing death sequence, we empathise with her completely. There’s real horror in this scene, not supernatural escapism.
“He perceives himself as an angel to some extent — an angel of death,” says Shyamalan of the Beast. “And so he’s quietly wrapping his arms around her and she’s trying to stab him, and stab him, and it’s not working … he believes that he’s part anaconda, part snake, and he just starts squeezing.”
As the camera goes back to Dr Fletcher’s face, which conceals his, for one last time, we see her facial muscles twitch before her mouth drops open and her body falls to the floor. He’s finally let go at the point the life is literally squeezed out of her. And we see his face for the first time.
If the eyes are the window to the soul, we’ve just switched from seeing deep into Dr Fletcher’s and feeling every one of those emotions she goes through during her ordeal to the cold, emotionless, fixed gaze of the Beast, and a soul lacking in standard human emotions. How did he get to this point? How did this beastly personality come into being; into the light? It’s a question that is answered in full in Glass.
Empathy Not Voyeurism
Interestingly, there’s another parallel with Psycho at this moment. “You just see her go quiet and then the audience hopefully goes: ‘Did you just kill the main character?’” says Shyamalan. Just like audiences did when Marion Crane bit the bullet (knife?) in Hitchcock’s masterpiece.
For Shyamalan, the scene was meant to slip the audience firmly into Fletcher’s shoes, rather than — as is typical of slasher movies — encourage us to watch the death voyeuristically.
“Being at the very moment of your death — what does it feel like? Shooting a scene from your own perspective of ‘What does it feel like to die and what’s happening to me?’” explains Shyamalan of his approach to the sequence. “As she feels the arms going around her, and [she’s thinking] it’s not possible he’s this strong, and all of those emotions [she’s feeling alongside that], and then realising: ‘This is the end’. And it’s coming in fragments, jagged fragments.”
It’s interesting to note that the physical description of the Beast we’re given in Split by Dennis differs from the version we actually go on to see. Which leads us to question Dennis’s reliability as well as consider the possibility that the Beast is able to shapeshift.
“He’s much bigger than I am and I’m the biggest of all of us,” says Dennis. “He’s tall, he’s very muscular, he’s got a long mane of hair and his fingers are twice the length of ours.”
A dramatic difference in size isn’t discernible, although James McAvoy, of course, transforms himself to denote the new personality. He’s certainly very muscular — but the long mane of hair and double-length fingers are clearly not present.
Glass presented an opportunity to explore this, which it didn’t take. But what the film does do is to take his innate animalistic qualities further — something that Split left us wanting more of. We see the Beast openly bounding like a big cat in Glass, and using his anaconda death grip on both David Dunn and the hospital orderly.
Glass also tantalisingly reveals more about Kevin, the Beast and the other alternate personalities — but the film’s frustrating ending suggests audiences may have seen the last of Shyamalan’s creation. As what is surely one of the 21st century’s greatest on-screen antagonists, we sincerely hope not.
Glass hits screens on January 18.