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Retro Review: SPLIT IMAGE (1982)

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SPLIT IMAGE
(US - 1982)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff. Written by Scott Spencer, Robert Kaufman and Robert Mark Kamen. Cast: Michael O'Keefe, Karen Allen, James Woods, Peter Fonda, Elizabeth Ashley, Brian Dennehy, Ronnie Scribner, Michael Sacks, Lee Montgomery, Ken Farmer, Cliff Stevens, John Dukakis, Peter Horton, Deborah Rush, Irma Hall, Bill Engvall. (R, 111 mins)

Journeyman director Ted Kotcheff (WAKE IN FRIGHT, NORTH DALLAS FORTY, UNCOMMON VALOR, WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S) had two movies in theaters in October 1982. One was the Sylvester Stallone sleeper hit FIRST BLOOD, a relatively serious drama that introduced the iconic John Rambo, loner Vietnam vet turned flag-draped American killing machine in a series of increasingly ridiculous sequels not directed by Kotcheff. The other was the barely-released SPLIT IMAGE, which only played on 129 screens at its widest release but found a major cult following in video stores and through constant cable airings throughout the decade. Made at a time when Jim Jones and 1978's Jonestown Massacre in Guyana were still in the public consciousness, SPLIT IMAGE followed the very similar 1981 Canadian drama TICKET TO HEAVEN, both involving a young man brainwashed by a religious cult until his family arranges for his kidnapping and subsequent deprogramming. TICKET was nominated for a whopping 14 Genies--the Canadian Oscars--winning four, including Best Film and Best Actor for star Nick Mancuso. SPLIT IMAGE is a bit more conventional take on the subject, with better-known actors for commercial potential, but still has moments of grueling intensity, unflinching brutality, and stomach-knotting suspense.






Following his Oscar-nominated performance in 1979's THE GREAT SANTINI and having 1980's CADDYSHACK stolen from him by four comedy legends, Michael O'Keefe stars as Danny Stetson, a college gymnast from a normal, happy, well-to-do upper-middle class family, with dad Kevin (Brian Dennehy), mom Diana (Elizabeth Ashley), and younger brother Sean (Ronnie Scribner). At a sports bar, Danny flirts with and is immediately attracted to Rebecca (Karen Allen, who had just been in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), who invites him to a movie night at an outreach program called "Community Rescue." He then attends a weekend retreat where he and other visitors meet Neil Kirklander (Peter Fonda), the charismatic leader of "Homeland." Kirklander talks of life needing meaning and how Homeland needs to become a self-sustained community by turning their back on the greed and decadence of modern society (he rails against "Cuisinarts, Perrier, and designer jeans") to focus on love and "creating a better world." While longstanding members busy themselves with woodworking, pottery, and a print shop, newer members are deprived of sleep and sufficient levels of nutrition as a way of systematically breaking them down. Danny is immediately skeptical ("This is a religious cult, isn't it?") and thinks about leaving but as he soon discovers, none of the new recruits (another is played by ubiquitous '70s child star Lee Montgomery of BEN and BURNT OFFERINGS) are ever left alone, and a clingy Rebecca won't even let him go off to use the bathroom by himself. Eventually, Danny decides he's seen enough and attempts to escape in the middle of the night. He almost drowns in a river in the process, and is taken back to Kirklander, and it doesn't take long before an exhausted, scared, and emotionally drained Danny surrenders to what's been a slow and insidious indoctrination. He renounces his former life, burning his clothes and his belongings as Homeland renames him "Joshua," and he calls his mother to curtly inform her that he loves them but he's never coming home.






When an attempt to visit Danny at Homeland results in a scuffle that gets Kevin arrested, the desperate Stetsons have nowhere to turn. They're soon contacted by Charles Pratt (James Woods), an outwardly sketchy sleazebag who's actually an expert deprogrammer hellbent on taking Kirklander down. For $10,000 cash, Pratt and his team will find Danny, abduct him, and bring him home for deprogramming--"to clean out his mind and hang it out to dry"--which, in Pratt's experience, can take anywhere from one hour to several days. Pratt finds Danny handing out pamphlets and flowers on a college campus and his guys grab him and throw him in the back of a van, taking him back to the Stetson home and locking him in a room with boarded-up windows, where Pratt goes to work. Hours upon hours are spent with the aggressive, enraged Pratt breaking through to Danny/"Joshua" in ways that almost parallel an exorcism (Pratt's repeated invocation of "I will not leave this room until Joshua is dead on the floor and Danny is reborn!" is SPLIT IMAGE's version of THE EXORCIST's "The power of Christ compels you!"). Things approach a religious cult take on STRAW DOGS as Rebecca and other Homelanders show up at the Stetson residence under Kirklander's orders in an attempted home invasion to bring "Joshua" back to Homeland.






SPLIT IMAGE is a riveting experience--the sequence where the Homelanders get into the house and Pratt reveals just how driven, obsessed, and violent he can be is absolutely terrifying--filled with top-notch performances that can't help but pale next to Woods. Three years after his breakout in 1979's THE ONION FIELD, the actor was perfecting that twitchy, crude ("I live in a pisshole," he tells Diana), fast-talking "James Woods" persona that we saw in so many great performances in his prime years (FAST-WALKING, VIDEODROME, SALVADOR, BEST SELLER, COP), and his work in SPLIT IMAGE is right up there with the best of them (Woods and Kotcheff would reunite for 1985's much more low-key Mordecai Richler adaptation JOSHUA THEN AND NOW). Another standout is Dennehy (who would later team with Woods in the underrated BEST SELLER), for whom SPLIT IMAGE also helped establish a recurring onscreen persona. Dennehy's Kevin is a loving father but also a successful businessman used to throwing his weight around and getting his way, evidenced in the way he presumptuously assumes he can just buy Danny out of Homeland ("Look, I'm just gonna write a check to this yo-yo," he says of Kirklander). This is vintage Brian Dennehy, who's always been one of our greatest character actors when it comes to conveying overconfident arrogance, which Kotcheff also used for maximum effect in FIRST BLOOD, where the actor's Sheriff Teasle gets way more than he bargained for when he decides to start harassing quiet drifter John Rambo for no reason when all he wants to do is pass through town.


Though O'Keefe is fine in a difficult role, he's overshadowed by Woods, Dennehy, and a coolly sinister Fonda and ultimately undermined by an unconvincing wig he's forced to wear in the second half of the film when he gets his post-indoctrination haircut, almost sidelining him in the same way the quartet of Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, and Bill Murray made him all but invisible in CADDYSHACK (no one cares about Danny Noonan and his college money and his Irish girlfriend anyway, right?). O'Keefe does get a few good moments, particularly in a creepy and absurdly comedic scene where a brainwashed "Joshua" is so overcome with desire for Rebecca--Kirklander forbids romance and any kind of sexual interaction and expression--that he's stirred awake in mid-ejaculation by a wet dream, which traumatizes him so much that he and Rebecca request an immediate meeting with Kirklander, who orders "Joshua" to speak in tongues to rid him of his filthy thoughts. There's some ahead-of-its-time commentary with a pre-emptive rebuking of the culture of greed of the '80s, only in its infancy here, but still voiced in criticism leveled at Kevin and Diana for not noticing that Danny was having a quarterlife crisis because they were focused on money and materialism. It's a facile argument that's not really explored to its full potential, and it's voiced by Danny's little brother Sean in a hackneyed speech that seems more than a little unlikely. SPLIT IMAGE has some other things that don't work. The time element isn't handled very well--it's not clear how long Danny is at Homeland before trying to escape and as a result, his brainwashing can either be seen as too abrupt or so subtle that you don't realize how well they've slowly worked him over (I'm guessing the filmmakers intended the latter, but it doesn't always play that way). And as great as Woods is here, we could use more background into his character. Was he a member of Kirklander's cult who got away?  Did he lose a loved one Homeland?  He's wearing a wedding ring but a wife is never mentioned. All we learn from the script, credited to Scott Spencer (1981's ENDLESS LOVE was based on his novel), Robert Kaufman (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, LOVE AT FIRST BITE), and future KARATE KID screenwriter and frequent Luc Besson collaborator Robert Mark Kamen (THE FIFTH ELEMENT, THE TRANSPORTER, TAKEN), is that Pratt really hates Kirklander.


Things almost shit the bed with a terrible final scene that reeks of someone demanding a happy ending, as it just doesn't seem plausible that Kirklander and some of the more intimidating Homelanders would chase Danny and Rebecca (who's ready to leave the cult to be with the reborn Danny), finally corner them and just let them skip away hand-in-hand after Danny simply tells Kirklander to leave them alone. It's a pat and far too easy wrap-up when we should've had at least one confrontation between Pratt and Kirklander, considering how much they allegedly hate one another. It's an unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise mostly solid film, one that managed to overcome its almost non-existent theatrical release to become a word-of-mouth cult movie on VHS and cable. SPLIT IMAGE has been hard to see over the years. It's never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, though it's available to stream on YouTube and still occasionally appears on late-night TV (Epix recently ran it at 2:20 am on a weeknight) if you scour the outer reaches of your onscreen cable guide.



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