Five most notable M Night Shyamalan films

Horror movies that skilfully explore the human psyche

Cinema

August 6, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Five most notable M Night Shyamalan films

M Night Shyamalan, one of Hollywood's most acclaimed directors in the horror and thriller genre, turns 50 today

Indian American film director M. Night Shyamalan, who turns 50 today, has had a career of astronomical highs and lows. His brilliant filmmaking has made him an influential and imitable creator of unpredictable horror and psycho-thriller films.

Born in Puducherry and raised in Pennsylvania, Manoj Nelliyattu “M. Night” Shyamalan is often touted as the most famous Indian director in Hollywood, with a worldwide cumulative gross exceeding USD 3 billion. Shyamalan has gained cult status for his trademark twist endings and supernatural plots, which often explore the psychological complexities of his characters.

Shyamalan developed his passion for filmmaking from an early age, and by the time he was 17, he had made 45 home movies, initially shot on a Super-8 camera. A fascinating tradition he has employed in almost every single one of his movies, barring two, is that on each DVD release, he includes a scene from one of his childhood creations which according to him, reflects his first attempt at that particular kind of theme or style of film.

At the beginning of his career, Shyamalan experienced a meteoric rise to the top, being compared to Hollywood greats like Hitchcock and Spielberg. In 2008, he was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri by the Government of India.

However, his prolific body of work has also been peppered with a few box-office bombs. To celebrate his golden jubilee, here is a list of some of Shyamalan’s most famous films and a peek into his journey as a legendary filmmaker.

Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense gave Shyamalan his first Oscar nomination, for the prestigious Best Director award

This list would be incomplete without Shyamalan’s most renowned work, The Sixth Sense. Becoming the second highest grosser of 1999, it catapulted him to success and put him on the path of becoming a household name.

The thriller tells the story of Bruce Willis as a child psychologist, who treats a patient able to communicate with the dead. The character development and exploration arcs of even the film’s minor characters reflected Shyamalan’s brilliant direction combined with his cleverly-written screenplay. Rather than solely relying on jump scares, which is where B-horror movies usually go wrong, his frights were perfectly placed throughout, terrifying without forgoing taste.

Rolling Stone journalist Brian Hiatt, who wrote a feature on the director, said the release of The Sixth Sense made Shyamalan “the kind of director whose projects could be marketed on the strength of his name alone.” It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Shyamalan, and made it to several prominent best horror lists.

Unbreakable (2002)

Samuel L.Jackson plays super villain, Mr. Glass, in the critically acclaimed Unbreakable

Unbreakable was Shyamalan’s first foray into superhero films, and stars Samuel L Jackson and his second collaboration with Willis, who plays a security guard named David who develops supernatural abilities after miraculously surviving a horrific train crash. One of the most brilliant and tension-ridden scenes in the movie is when David’s son points a loaded gun at him at the dinner table, who is then forced to deescalate the situation by invoking his son’s deep-seated trauma and threatening to leave him and his mother. Interestingly, Shyamalan was frustrated with some aspects of the film because while he wanted to market it as a comic book movie, Touchstone company insisted on portraying it as a psychological thriller due to the success of its predecessor. In fact, Shyamalan often expressed disappointment at the typecasting of his direction.

Loaded with suspense, the film was praised by critics for its cinematography and Shyamalan’s characteristic unpredictability. Although initially criticised by some for not being as good as The Sixth Sense, it later gained a cult following, extoled by Hollywood bigwigs like Quentin Tarantino, who included it on his list of the top 20 films released since 1992 and called it a “brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology.” Others described it as one of the best superhero origin stories every made, and a skillful “deconstruction of the American superhero/villain complex”.

The Village (2004)

Many critics did not enjoy Shyamalan’s characteristic twist ending in The Village

A period thriller, The Village, is probably where things started to go wrong for the director. The film tells the story of a 19th century village in Pennsylvania, whose inhabitants live in fear of monsters in the woods beyond. It is later revealed that the characters are actually in the 21st century but are part of a strange cult-like community where people live protected from the  outside world to escape past traumas. The so-called “creatures” are actually regular human beings who are not allowed in.

Although the movie was a financial success, grossing $257 million worldwide, Shyamalan’s penchant for unpredictable twists simply didn’t make the cut this time, with critics deriding the ending. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film only one star, calling it a “colossal miscalculation” and putting it on his “Most Hated” list. However, his interpretation of how human beings deal with grief and sorrow was commended. The film garnered some negative press as well, with Margaret Peterson Haddix, author of the young adult novel Running Out of Time (1996), accusing Shyamalan of plagiarising several main ideas from her book, and prompting Simon & Schuster to threaten a lawsuit.

The Last Airbender (2010)

The whitewashed casting in The Last Airbender was heavily criticized by audiences

After a few more critical flops like Lady In the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008), Shyamalan felt dejected and lost motivation for a while, noting, “I felt like was I starting to lose my voice a bit.”

Thus, he decided to experiment with some new styles and genres during this time. The Last Airbender, a big-budget adaptation of the treasured children’s cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, failed to live up to fans’ high expectations, and was described as having “horrible acting” and “joyless performances.” Although yet another financial success with some enjoying the fight sequences, it was hugely panned across the board by critics due to a choppy plot and controversial casting choices, with white actors playing East-Asian and Inuit roles. Protestors accused the film of racism and missed opportunities, disappointed in Shyamalan, who, despite being a person of colour in the industry, distorted the diverse ethnicities of the beloved characters.

Split (2016)

Split reestablished Shyamalan as a master of the psychological thriller genre

Psychological horror-thriller Split, starring James McAvoy as Kevin, a man with dissociative-identity disorder and 24 different personalities who kidnaps three teenage girls, truly reinstated Shyamalan as master of his genre after a string of failures. The film is a suspenseful, thrilling ride as the girls, led by Casey, try to manipulate the weakest personalities in order to escape.

Audiences in particular loved the protagonist’s struggle to restrain his “evil” sides, lauding McAvoy’s perfect acting as a supernatural beast that emulated the use of special effects by itself. A commercial as well as critical success, Split addresses issues often taboo in society, such as the distress and stigma around mental health and abuse of characters. However, it has also received some criticism for “demonising” mental illnesses.

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