Director Spotlight – M. Night Shyamalan

Andrew Buckle,

To celebrate the upcoming release of M. Night Shyamalan’s Old in cinemas – check out the trailer here – we’re reminiscing on the career of the Philadelphia-born filmmaker best known for his twist endings. It all started back in 1999 with the hugely successful The Sixth Sense (his third directorial credit), but Shyamalan has been carving out a unique place in the supernatural thriller sub-genre for now over 20 years. Here is a video we made celebrating Shyamalan’s career to date, with our ranking of his top 10 movies.

Below is further commentary on five notable movies that have the most positively forged a space in the cultural discussion (The Village, we have your back) and continue to entertain, confound and of course surprise again and again.

Warning: It is difficult to discuss Shyamalan’s movies without revealing some spoilers, but we have tried to keep the commentary as broad as possible. If you haven’t watched these movies we a) recommend checking them out if you watch and enjoy Old, and b) suggest not reading on if you wish to go into the experience with as little knowledge as possible.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Cast – Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg

With a twist ending that had everyone talking The Sixth Sense was carried by cyclonic word-of-mouth to become the second-highest grossing movie of 1999 in the United States and earning six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Haley Joel Osment’s unforgettable performance alongside an against-type Bruce Willis remains extraordinary, while the film’s unsettling atmosphere and Shyamalan’s ability to ensconce an audience in a plain-sight shroud of misdirection remains a feat few filmmakers have been able to achieve (and to such an affecting level) since.

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The Village (2004)

Cast – Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson

When The Village was released audiences were starting to get accustomed to Shyamalan’s penchant for a big reveal and this one sure was divisive. It is a shame that so much of the incredible work in this film – Shyamalan’s disciplined commitment to establishing the unsettling atmosphere of the setting and the embedded mythology, the wonderful performances (Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix notably), and James Newton Howard’s Oscar-nominated score – was dismissed because of an ‘unsatisfying’ ending. The Village’s true horrors are more sad than terrifying – a greater good sought from a traumatic past via collective deception, the denial of agency for the innocent – but remain even more potent to this day.

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Signs (2002)

Cast – Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Abigail Breslin, Rory Culkin, Cherry Jones

Signs is a fun, spooky thriller that became a teen sleepover staple in the years to follow. It possesses now-legendary jump scares – some born from reckless night traipses into the cornfields to investigate the disturbances, with others the result of well executed daylight reveals. In addition to the exploration of global extraterrestrial intervention Signs poses some interesting questions about faith and fear of the unknown. As a faith-tested Graham (Gibson) probes into the mystery of the crop circles, he must stretch the limits of what he believes in and what he must accept to protect his family. Merrill’s (Phoenix) professional failures have psychologically paralysed him and he surrenders himself to accepting the inevitable/worst. Can he swing his way out of it and help protect the Hess’ piece of the Dream?

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Unbreakable (2000)

Cast – Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright, Spencer Treat Clark

Unbreakable became such an underground cult favourite that it spawned two thematically-linked sequels in Split and Glass over a decade later. A super-power story unlike any we are seeing made today, Unbreakable deconstructs the superhero genre (notably the Superman story), creating a quietly intense human drama that walks a line between the harsh realities of life and an alternative universe usually reserved for comic book stories. Dunn’s discovery of his involvement in this world (featuring affecting yet subtle work from Willis) strengthens his bond with his son, and he is manipulated into honing the unique abilities that had remained unharnessed in his regular day-to-day life. Dunn finds himself in compromising situations and begins to question the motives of his mysterious ally, Elijah Price (Jackson).

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The Visit (2015)

Cast – Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn

Widely accepted as a return to form for M. Night (after a couple of’blockbuster’ flops), but featuring a cast of relative-unknowns this was an unexpected shift into the indie budget realm of found-footage horror. The film proved to be a huge box office success up against it’s minuscule $5M budget. The Visit centers around two teenagers, who having never met their grandparents due to their estrangement from their single mother, decide to document the five day visit to their isolated farmhouse. The humour here is an acquired taste and this odd film is a bit too off-the-wall to stand with the more dramatically-affecting films listed above (in our opinion). But there’s still a lot to admire with Shyamalan resurrecting the classic child-peril trope and adopting a grassroots approach to the construction of the chills and thrills.

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