Dead in a Heartbeat: Facing Mortality in ‘Split Second’
By Matt Konopka
There comes a point in our lives when we can hear the bell tolling in the distance and recognize the existence of our own mortality…
…It came for me when a doctor dropped the bombshell that I had high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. A triple whammy that had sucker-punched my ticker into a bruised mess. For the first time, I considered the previously unthinkable: Death might not wait until I was older. It could slither out of the darkness tomorrow, daggered teeth bared in grinning anticipation of swallowing my soul.
Director Tony Maylam’s action-horror vehicle Split Second manifests that fear of mortality into an all too real monster personifying the terror lurking in the shadows of our subconscious.
Written by Gary Scott Thompson, Split Second takes place in the distant dystopian future of…2008…and stars an utterly deranged Rutger Hauer as Detective Harley Stone, a man drowning in rage-ahol. After witnessing the death of his partner, Harley is hunting his killer through the flooded streets of London (yay global warming) hell-bent on finding the Harry Warden wannabe tearing hearts out of the locals. Much to his disliking, the rogue cop is paired with uptight detective Dick Durkin (Alastair Duncan) to keep an eye on him. But as they get closer to the killer, the duo discovers they’re after a what, not a who.
Acknowledging death is never easy. From the moment we meet him, Harley is on the run from the reaper. Named after a Harley Davidson motorcycle, he roars through the streets like his namesake, sporting a long leather coat and sunglasses in spite of the near never-ending night, as if trying to keep the darkness out. Smokes, chocolate, and dubious amounts of coffee fuel his manic drive and hold off a sleep he’s worried he might not wake from. Outfitted to the teeth in armor and weapons (he couldn’t get a permit for that grenade launcher), he exudes badassery incarnate.
But like an insecure man driving a fast car, it’s all compensating. He’s seen the face of death, and he’s terrified.
Marked with a nasty scar on his left shoulder to remember his partner’s killer, Harley is haunted by his own mortality. To be so close to death, its rotten stench invading your nostrils…that does something to a person. Originally titled Pentagram, the change to Split Second is an inspired (and better) choice, because it reflects the fact that death strikes suddenly. One minute you’re laughing with loved ones, and a split second later you’re in the clutches of a heart-munching monster.
It isn’t spoken out loud in the film, but Harley has a heart condition. He smokes, drinks, and eats like someone trying to bring on the inevitable heart attack quicker. To him, it’s an act of defiant ignorance of his issues. In reality, Harley is a snake eating its own tail. He lives in fear of death’s claws having their way with him but is destroying himself as a result. Terror takes a terrible toll on the human body, and Harley is a prime example of the way some of us would rather crash and burn in a blazing fire than face the truth of our own deterioration.
Harley plants himself so firmly in the “I’m fine” camp, that along with shouting at anyone who would dare say otherwise, he identifies his heart failure with the towering beast that is stalking him. Trudging through dark streets as clogged with water as his own arteries, he screams “I can hear your heartbeat,” the thwump-thwumping of what he thinks is the creature’s heart filling his ears while he clutches at his own chest. The human mind sure does have a fascinating sense of deflection. We’ll conjure up bonds with monsters just to avoid admitting our body ain't right.
Some of us also become the fiend ourselves when we can’t face the idea that we won’t, in fact, live forever. An impressive creature designed by Stephen Norrington with skin as black as night and claws that would make Michael Myers’ butcher knife envious, Split Second’s monster may embody Harley’s fear of death lurking underneath every quickening heartbeat, yet it’s also a mirrored reflection of the darkness building inside him. The lore in this piece of Hauer-sploitation is vague at best, hinting that Harley and the creature share DNA thanks to the love tap it left on his shoulder. More interesting though is the possibility that the thing was once a man like Harley, now snatching hearts and absorbing them to keep its own going. Harley, meanwhile, devolves into a raging psychotic that might wish he could do the same. He’s an angry monster pushing everyone away in his never-ending pursuit to somehow conquer death.
That is until love interest Michelle (Kim Cattrall) is kidnapped by the beast, and Harley is forced to reconcile with the knowledge that no one is safe around him until he can face death and his own anger towards it.
In a rip-roaring conclusion shot by director Ian Sharp after the previous director Tony Maylam left the picture, Harley finally chooses not to face his monster alone and bands together with Durkin and Michelle to battle the creature in a flooded subway station. “Relax, pal,” he mutters while kali ma-ing the thing and ripping its heart out to a cacophony of screams, as if to tell himself that he can finally breathe easy, too. The hold death has on us is only as strong as we allow it to be. Harley’s heart condition doesn’t magically disappear, but in facing his mortality, he can try to enjoy whatever time he has left.
Whether a heart attack or a slavering hell-spawn, death comes for us all in the end. That’s okay. That’s life. You can tremble from its presence in that watery alleyway of the mind, or you can tear its heart out as Harley does, laugh in its face and go on living.
Me? I’m learning to take the Harley route. 🩸
Matt is a writer and wannabe werewolf who began his love of horror at the ripe old age of 3 with Carpenter’s Christine. He has a horror podcast called Killer Horror Critic which he does with his wonderful wife, and has previously been published on Bloody Disgusting, Shudder’s The Bite, and Daily Grindhouse. You can also find more of his reviews and ramblings at his blog, KillerHorrorCritic.com.
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