M. Night Shyamalan has had an “interesting” career in film. His breakthrough movie as writer / director arrived in 1999 in the form of The Sixth Sense. A supernatural chiller that was an instant hit with fans and critics. With an original idea, a twist ending and a Hollywood A-lister in the lead role the film was a bona fide smash, returning 16 times it’s budget at the box office.
Since then there has been a gradual decline in Shyamalan’s output. He is the only writer / director I can think of whose following six films have all scored lower than the last according to both IMDB’s users and critics. Between 2000 and 2010, Night’s Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender saw him slip from The Sixth Sense‘s 8.1/10 user rating to 4.2/10. His next film, After Earth in 2013 would only see him reach a 4.6 rating, which, when compared to some of his previous work is quite staggeringly poor.
Despite this I’ve always been a fan of Shyamalan, and generally speaking have always found something in each of his films to enjoy. I tend to try a lot harder than most to like his output, because I’m constantly reminiscing about the great work he did early on in his career. It’s like I want him to succeed and want him to do really well because I know what he’s capable of. Even I can admit though that he has been off the boil for quite a while.
I’ve recently revisited some of his earlier work after seeing the trailer for his latest feature. The film Split due for release in January has really got me excited. A fantastic concept, glowing reviews from previews and pre-screenings and the inclusion of James McAvoy make me think this could be Night’s return to brilliance.
It’s currently one of my most anticipated releases of next year, and looks to have all the key ingredients of a fantastic Shyamalan production.
The casting of James McAvoy has really got me excited, as when he steps aside from his Hollywood blockbusters, he tends to lend himself to really interesting and more independently spirited projects.
For example his starring roles in Filth, Trance and Atonement are some of my favourite films of his career.
With 11 films under his belt dictatorially and 2 more in the pipeline, as well as additional writing, producing and acting credits, Night has packed a lot into a 24 year stint in the film industry.
So, without further ado, here’s my Top 5 M. Night Shyamalan movies:
5. The Visit (2015)
Just squeezing The Village out of the top 5, I feel obliged to give Shyamalan’s latest horror flick a space in the list. I don’t necessarily feel it’s a finer film than The Village but here’s my reasoning:
After his previous 2 films, The Last Airbender and After Earth, with a combined budget of nearly $300 million, it was quite refreshing to see him shake off any Hollywood requirements and make a choppy, low budget ($5 million) horror movie with no stars and no big special effects.
Filmed as a faux-documentary created by the 2 child actors, the film uses a couple of hand held cameras to document their visit to their estranged grandparents.
It’s definitely not an original concept. The shaky-cam, found footage, fake documentary horror movie idea has been around for decades. For years the Blair Witch Projects, Last Exorcisms, Cloverfields, Troll Hunters and ParaSNOREmal (in)Activity films have essentially desensitised audiences to the sub-genre, and The Visit doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the party. If anything, I don’t think the film benefits from being filmed in the way it was. The story would have worked perfectly well as a stand alone drama, without the faux-documentary gimmick. As is the case with most films of this type, to help create realism there is an awful lot of “nothing” going on. In order to make the shocking moments more shocking you have to offset that with bland normality, and it does take the film a while to really get going.
Having said all this and reservations aside, there are incidental moments in the film that I think were very good. It definitely feels like the least mainstream project he’s attempted as in his previous films it’s hard to imagine **SPOILERS** a demented pensioner smearing feces on a child’s face or someone getting brutally stabbed to death with a piece of broken glass. That’s why it’s earned its place on the list. After a troublesome spell working within the confines of Hollywood, it’s refreshing to see him step out of that and do something completely different.
Next years Split could be a return to form for Shyamalan and I feel The Visit was the transitional film between his sci-fi / fantasy mega flops and him getting back on track to creating really engaging mystery / thrillers.
4. The Happening (2008)
Quite a controversial choice to include on the list I know. I’ve yet to find a single person who has a nice word to say about the film, and it is often regarded as one of Night’s worst ever releases.
I’ve always had a soft spot for The Happening. I suppose after Shyamalan’s previous horror / chillers, the audience had come to expect a level of quality that The Happening never reaches. However, on it’s own merits, I think it’s great little B-Movie. If that’s all you want to take away from the film, then The Happening delivers.
If it’s a below par genre movie that you’re after then you can forgive the questionable dialogue, wooden performances and ridiculous concepts because that’s what it is. Granted, Night may have been attempting to put out an intelligent, well scripted thriller, but I’ve embraced his failure and as a fan of B-Movies can enjoy it on the plateau that it ended up on. As with most cult movies, they generally never set out to be cult movies. With this, I think it’s a B-Movie that never set out to be a B-Movie. Either way, visually there are some really exciting moments, and Mark Wahlberg is perfectly enjoyable spouting out a load of old drivel for 90 minutes.
3. The Sixth Sense (1999)
With 6 Oscar nominations and rave critic reviews, The Sixth Sense was one of the most popular films of the year and indeed the decade. A slow burning mystery / chiller with one of the most infamous twist endings in cinematic history helped establish Shyamalan as a modern auteur and master story teller.
With directorial traits, not typical of Hollywood, The Sixth Sense stands out when compared to other contemporary horror films. Focusing much more on characters and their relationships as apposed to gratuitous gore or violence, the film gets under your skin in a more eerie kind of way, and there is a sustained level of dread throughout the film, making it a lot more atmospheric than your bog standard ghost story.
Shyamalan gets a really restrained and subtle performance out of Bruce Willis that wasn’t typical of him at the time and his chemistry with Haley Joel Osment really carries the movie. A brilliantly understated Bruce Willis performance would also be something Night would utilize in his next feature… But we’ll get to that.
2. Signs (2002)
Possibly the best cast ensemble in a Shyamalan film to date. Mel Gibson gives a fantastic performance in the lead role, and equally brilliant are Joaquin Phoenix and the child actors Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin playing his farm based family.
As far as modern science fiction goes Signs is a really excellent film. For the first 90 minutes or so of the movie, the entire portrayal of alien lifeforms is subtle, minimal and relies on suggestion, mystery and the characters own paranoia. Due to the desolate and quiet farming landscape, on which the majority of the film is set, when there are flutters of horror they seem really intense and heart stopping. A lot of people criticize the ending of the film, whereby *SPOILER ALERT* the aliens come out from the shadows into full view and interact with Rory Culkin’s character Morgan. The suggestion is that the director copped out and just threw everything up on the screen, as apposed to the first 90 minutes which is all about subtlety and elusiveness. Granted the hints and whispers are what ultimately make the film excellent, but I personally don’t mind the ending and I think there is enough in the film to make it one of Night’s finest.
1. Unbreakable (2000)
A mystery thriller about superheros set in the real world. Or, as Quantin Tarantino referred to it: “What is Superman was here on earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?”
Unbreakable is a fantastic piece of cinema. Mirroring Bruce Willis’s (seemingly) indestructible character with Samuel L. Jackson’s antagonist who has a rare disease rendering his bones to be extremely fragile and easily breakable, the film is very much about the duality between the 2 men. This is by far Bruce Willis’s most downplayed performance, and he is extremely watchable. Samuel L. Jackson is a much more flamboyant character, but equally fantastic.
With an engaging narrative, containing some of the finest Shyamalan twists, turns and reveals, an aesthetically pleasing colour palette and the finest score in Night’s back catalogue, composed by James Newton Howard, Unbreakable I feel is his finest work. Again, as is the Shyamalan norm, the ending has been criticised, but I feel Willis’s sober performance always keeps the film grounded. Even when he’s undertaking his heroic acts, it never tips over into the realm of silliness. It’s unique, even in terms of the superhero genre and I feel it would be an incredibly hard task to come close to it with any further releases.