Short Spotlight : Split (2014)

Short films are, by their very nature, problematic – communicating a story that’s sufficiently involving and interesting, with believable characters and enough exciting events to hold the attention of an audience is difficult enough when given ninety minutes to do so, let alone fifteen or twenty.

When it comes to horror, the idea of doing so is somewhat more of a challenge, as even the shorts that were showcased over last year’s Frightfest weekend were, for the most part, dull and forgettable, even before the credits rolled.

It’s refreshing, then, to stumble upon something that is as shockingly well-made and stylistically interesting as Andy Stewart’s stark, disturbing and very memorable short Split, the second installment in his body horror themed, sort-of trilogy, which makes a significant case for the format in general, and particularly for its use in modern horror.

Split follows in the footsteps of the very well-received Dysmorphia, which itself was shot over just two days, for a meager budget of £160, and which went on to pick up numerous awards on the festival circuit – even being championed by genre darlings Jen and Sylvia Soska, after it was featured before their own American Mary as part of Frightfest Presents in Glasgow.

Described by the Soskas as the “best short film” they’d ever seen, Dysmorphia introduced the body horror theme that Split picks up, and indeed exceeds, in gruesome, gooey glory. Starring American actor Austin Hayden, as the poor fellow who, quite literally, splits before our eyes, opposite Sawney’s Shian Denovan, the film’s modest budget isn’t even momentarily obvious in the remarkably slick finished product.

The premise is simple, yet ultimately terrifying, as Hayden’s unnamed protagonist lies in bed, depressed over his recent split from Denovan’s character, whom, we learn through cleverly inter-spliced flashback sequences, he wronged and ultimately lost during a blazing row. As he awakens to the harsh light of another day alone, he is violently ill, and notices a sore on his chest (which he pops to wonderfully gooey effect), the first of many.

Over the course of the film, more and more oozing, hideous wounds pop up, as the protagonist loses his hair, coughs up blood and, in one particularly gruesome shot, even finds he can pull his skin back to reveal the veins underneath. Though Hayden’s central performance is undeniably great, it’s Grant Mason’s incredible special effects that are the real star of the film.

Boasting a CV stuffed with work on Sleepy Hollow, Bride Of Chucky and The Wolfman, to name but a few, Mason’s disgustingly realistic creations are worth watching the film for alone – every boil, every oozing sore, every drop of blood and pus is perfectly realised, to the point that it almost seems wrong when we don’t get to see each and every one popped and splattered across the screen.

Though there is scarcely little dialogue throughout, the writing and direction, both from Stewart are equally strong, the camera kept claustrophobically close at certain moments, before hanging back to reveal bloodied bed sheets at others. Only one setting is used – a messy apartment – and it is the moments spent in bed, and in the white-tiled bathroom that are the most stark and frightening, as deep reds are contrasted against shocking, pure whites.

The melancholic score drifts in and out depending on the moment at hand, complementing the sadness of the disintegration of the central character. There are many ways to read the film, and it will depend on the viewer how the story is taken, but as a metaphor for the disintegration of a relationship and all of the bad feelings that come with the end of such a strong bond, during which one is incredibly open and vulnerable, it is very strong indeed.

Stewart shows real flair as both a writer and director, while comparisons to last year’s Thanatomorphose seem too obvious, even offensive. Though the body horror theme runs through both, Split manages not to be over the top with its ever-present gore, instead showing certain things, but not everything, leaving the imagination to fill in the blanks. It’s to Stewart’s credit that he allows the story to speak for itself, neglecting to show too much at times when perhaps a higher budget would allow him to do so – or even a feature length film.

Not for the faint hearted (or the weak stomached), Split is a remarkably effective, incredibly shocking, poignant, and disturbing film, making a case for modern body horror, and genre shorts, while showcasing some brilliantly splattery, impressively practical special effects and a heartbreakingly realistic central performance in which the smallest gestures communicate the biggest regrets and sadness.

The final part in the trilogy, Ink, is currently being funded via Indiegogo and promises to ramp the carnage up a further notch – if that’s even possible.

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