It’s astounding to consider that M. Night Shyamalan’s career trajectory over the past twenty years has had as many ups and downs. Since he broke out in the summer of 1999 with his third directorial effort, The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has directed 11 feature films (and one television pilot)…of varying quality.
In honour of his latest film – and his first true direct sequel – Glass, I’ve convinced Bloody Disgusting to let me do a completely objective and scientific ranking of M. Night’s filmography (twists-and-all).* Prepare for some controversial takes, but first, a caveat: I don’t include Shyamalan’s non-horror efforts in this list, so you won’t see The Last Airbender (garbage adaptation), Will Smith’s Scientology vanity project After Earth (sheer dreck) or either of Shyamalan’s two pre-Sixth Sense films (who could care?)
*This is obviously completely subjective and there is no science (although there are some box office figures).
Spoilers follow (with the exception of Glass)
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
I struggled with this choice because The Sixth Sense is not my favourite Shyamalan film. But when you consider the potent results of this original M. Night/Bruce Willis collaboration and its cultural footprint over the last twenty years, this is the only logical choice for the top spot. Consider: this is the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture since The Silence of the Lambs took home the gold statuette back in 1992. The Sixth Sense was ultimately nominated for a total of six Oscars (it lost them all), but it firmly established M. Night as an auteur to watch, reinvigorated the idea of a horror film with legs (it spent 15 weeks in the top 10) and was the second highest grossing film of 1999…after The Phantom Menace. Not bad for a breakout.
A lot of people focus primarily on two elements from this film: Haley Joel Osment confessing his ability to see ghosts (which was a prominent aspect of the trailer) and the most infamous twist of Shyamalan’s career. The truth is that The Sixth Sense is about a lot more than creepy kids and dead therapists. It is the purest distillation of Shyamalan’s interest in broken families, divorce, people with special abilities and how horror can be used as a vehicle for conveying trauma and grief. It doesn’t hurt that the film is populated by exceptional performances: Willis is low-key, but haunting; Osment is a revelation, as is Toni Collette as his mother (in one of several early attempts by the Aussie actress to break out in North America).
High. The twist is clearly laid and out and in no way detracts from the film, but because Shyamalan was bright and shiny, audiences had no idea that a twist was even coming. Instead, the reveal that Willis’ Malcolm Crowe has been dead the entire film drove audiences to the theatre, propelling the film to an astronomical gross and launching Shyamalan’s reputation as the next “Spielberg”.
2. Unbreakable (2000)
Unbreakable is my personal favourite of M. Night’s films and a pre-Glass rewatch proved that the film’s only deficiency is that it followed The Sixth Sense (and completely unrealistic audience expectations). The interplay between Willis’ David Dunn and Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price, playing the film’s most dynamic character, is electric, even if Willis downplays his character’s heroism to nearly monosyllabic levels. Robin Wright is given less than nothing to do (forecasting Shayamalan’s predilection for male protagonists and one-dimensional female characters) but the last act of the film, when Dunn dons his green Security slicker and goes out into the rainy night to embrace his destiny, is thrilling.
Audiences weren’t quite as enamored: the film grossed nearly $200M less domestically than The Sixth Sense, which left the finished film with a whiff of failure that persists even to this day (Read John Squires’ recent defense of Unbreakable here)
Medium. Back to back films with twists marked Shyamalan as a gamemaster, though audiences reacted less favourably to Elijah’s secret agenda, which requires a final video footage montage to explain.
3. The Village (2004)
Let controversy reign! Shyamalan’s third best film isn’t the one the dedicates 90% of its runtime to corn fields, glasses of water and a certain racist. No, it’s The Village, the oft-derided minor gem featuring Bryce Dallas Howard as a blind woman being gaslit by a bunch of old white folks so hysterically desperate to protect her (and others) from the corruption of “the city” that they recreate a Puritan life in an enclosed park. The Village is lush with visually engaging period details and more than a few great scare sequences that John Krasinki should give more credit to.
The difference with The Village and Shyamalan’s previous films is that audiences went into the film looking for the twist, rather than watching the film and being sidelined by the reveal. This produced two reactions: eagle-eyed viewers figured out the truth and complained it was too easy OR audiences felt that the twist wasn’t “good” or “fair.”
Twists aside, The Village is a masterfully well-constructed period drama that still evokes all of Shyamalan’s thematic priorities, while also offering up his first three-dimensional heroine. Howard is excellent in the lead role, and the film features a plethora of terrifying sequences (go back and rewatch the scene when the creature enters the house). Unfortunately, audiences didn’t bite; despite making $114M, the film is viewed as one of his least successful.
It’s time to rectify that.
High. This is arguably Shyamalan’s most audacious twist, as well as his least popular. Like all of his other films, however, the evidence is in plain sight throughout the film. By this time Shyamalan had a twist in every single film and audiences weren’t having it.
4. Tie – Split (2016) / Glass (2019)
Yup, still no Signs.
Split takes the goodwill that Shyamalan began rebuilding with audiences with The Visit and runs with it, creating a role for the ages for James McAvoy in Kevin Wendell Crumb.
There are undoubtedly issues with the depiction of mental illness and therapy (I love Betty Buckley, but Dr. Fletcher is a bit of an idiot), as well as some icky connotations in the way that the young teen girls essentially exist solely as murder fodder for The Beast.
But oh boy, what a performance by McAvoy! The British actor has no problems switching seamlessly between distinct personalities and the sheer physicality of his Beast persona is terrifying, even before he begins climbing the walls. Credit must also be given to Anya Taylor-Joy, whose wide-eyed performance is both evocative and empowering. Even with some spotty flashbacks explaining her troubled backstory, Taylor-Joy is the focal point of Split and it is cathartic to see her survive her ordeal.
Glass literally builds right off Split, but throws in Unbreakable for a slightly uneven union of two very different types of films. McAvoy remains the star (Willis and Jackson are given less to do) and the film is much more divisive for both playing into and denying audience expectations, so for me, it’s right in the middle (read my review here).
5. Signs (2002)
The crop circle thriller starts off the back of the pack. It’s undeniably a well shot film and its deep dive into grief and trauma is affective, particularly in those long silences. What doesn’t work, if we’re being honest, is the aliens: the character design is unmemorable, the motivation is unexplained and their downfall falls somewhere between a War of the Worlds rip-off and a laugh out loud farce (hurray for all of those glasses of water lying around the house).
The other significant reason that this film is low on the list? It simply isn’t all that memorable. It’s a lot of cornfield action, kids in tinfoil hats and hiding in closets. It’s…dare I say it, boring? Be honest: how much of your memories are infused with riffs from Scary Movie 3?
Finally, seventeen years later it now suffers from what I affectionately call “I don’t want to watch him”-itis with Mel Gibson as its lead. #SorryNotSorry #NotReadyToForgive
In 2002, however, Gibson was at the height of his renaissance with What Women Want. Add another creepy kid and a great ad campaign and Signs ballooned to $227M, suggesting Shyamalan’s magic touch was back.
Mild. The aliens are afraid of water? Zzzzzzz
6. The Visit (2015)
The Visit is arguably the most unique entry in Shyamalan’s filmography. Its most distinguishing characteristic is that it is a “found footage” film, comprised of video shot by the brother/sister protagonists who are visiting their grandparents for the first time. Like many other M.Night films, the film’s narrative is a mediation on the impact of divorce (both Olivia DeJonge‘s Becca and Ed Oxenbould‘s Tyler have internalized their feelings about being abandoned by their father and their mother, played by the luminous Kathryn Hahn, instigates the visit with an impromptu cruise trip with her new boyfriend).
Of course, The Visit is also a teasing mystery about what is actually going on with Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) and what drove Becca and Tyler’s mom away. Like a haunted house film, the strange events at the grandparents’ home escalate over the course of the week. Nana acts like a demon at night, chases the kids underneath the house, and ominously encourages Becca to clean her cavernous oven. Pop Pop leaves used diapers in the shed and attacks strangers without provocation. The film carefully treads the line between “old people are kooky and sick” and “these weirdos are homicidal!”
This entry comes in firmly in the middle of the pack for a few reasons: your mileage may vary on the kids and the usual “perfectly shot/why do they continue shooting” found footage issues pop up, particularly in the climax. Addressing the former issue, both child actors are pretty good (they’re even better in Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out), but some of their mannerisms can be a little grating (the rapping is an oft-repeated detractor). Still, Shyamalan’s willingness to step out of his box, tap into the comedy of the premise and focus on the script pays off with his best film in years. The $65M gross isn’t comparable to his heyday; the real victory is in the good reviews (Read Bloody’s original review here)
The closest approximation to a twist is the emotional revelation of what caused the rift between Mom and her actual parents, which underscores the true intentions of the film, which is that characters come first.
7. Lady In The Water (2006)
Lady in the Water is like a bad comedy/drama about a bunch of insufferable caricatures living in a rundown apartment complex who band together to carry a nearly silent, extremely pale Bryce Dallas Howard five feet to the pool. Paul Giamatti stutters his way through the thankless lead role as Howard’s translator/protector/errand boy while she hangs out in different people’s showers.
It’s a ponderous, frequently boring film filled with made up words, which makes sense when you consider that it’s based on a made-up children’s fable M.Night told his children. Even the failed pool party escape, what should be the film’s most exciting sequence, plays out in underwhelming fashion because nothing truly happens or is seen.
This is all before the director throws in a double whammy of creative self-indulgence. Lady in the Water’s many thankless characters include: 1) a fourth wall-breaking, metatextual-spouting film critic who predicts his own death (an unsubtle dig by M.Night as payback for reviewers who panned his films) and 2) a martyred writer whose new work will change the world of the future…played by M.Night himself in a masterstroke of narcissism.
The only real reason to watch this dreck is because the Scrunt creature effects are half decent. Audiences didn’t fall for the BS, however; still smarting from The Village, Lady in the Water delivered M.Night the lowest grossing film of his career at $42M.
Nil. By this point in his career, Shyamalan had been lambasted for too many twists, so the film simply ends abruptly with a Lord of the Rings-esque flight of the eagle, then it’s straight into credits.
8. The Happening (2008)
The Happening is a film about plants releasing toxins into the wind that cause humans to kill themselves. It is also one of the worst studio movies ever released.
Mark Wahlberg is a science teacher who wears a mood ring, speaks to plastic plants and delivers so much inane technical jargon that you can literally see the Chicago native struggling to work through his lines. In one atrocious scene, Wahlberg’s Elliot Moore reacts to repeated gunshots (denoting mass suicide) with a completely hollow “Oh no”. It.Is.Priceless.
Zoey Deschanel is Alma, a tiramisu adulterer who constantly looks confused about how to act or react in any given situation. She, too, has seemingly forgotten how to deliver dialogue or act naturally. Collectively she and Wahlberg are the worst lead actors in a major studio movie that I have ever seen.
My notes on the film are a hodge-podge of exclamations marks and profanity, which is befitting for a film that makes nooooo sense. Characters routinely enter and then disappear at from the narrative on a whim, so the worst actors are our only constant. People regularly attempt to outrun the wind. Two teenagers are shot with a shotgun in slow motion and it’s unintentionally hilarious. John Leguizamo uses a math riddle to soothe a hysterical woman. There are ominous shots of wind through the grass and the trees, as well as a stinger sound cue when a girl sits on a tree swing and close-ups of small holes in the roof of a Jeep denoting DOOM.
It’s all patently ridiculous and none of it is even remotely frightening. Disappointingly, the selling feature – the deaths – aren’t scary or effective in the slightest (with the mild exception of the hanging deaths in Princeton).
And just in case you have forgotten how atrocious this film is: THERE IS AN ENTIRE CONVERSATION ABOUT HOT DOGS. It is THE WORST. And yet, The Happening still somehow managed to gross $64M. What is wrong with you people?! (Read Bloody’s original review here)
Nil. The film whimpers to an end with little more than a tacked on coda suggesting the horror will begin again…in Paris.