M. Night Shyamalan returns to terrorize audiences with a brand-new movie, “Knock at the Cabin.” His latest is classic Shyamalan – a quasi-supernatural occurrence, the love of a close-knit family unit and some prolonged suspense sequences that will have you grabbing the arm of your theater chair (or your date). It’s a white knuckler, for sure. And it’s enough to make us look back at his earlier movies, each more devious than the last (well, except for his religious coming-of-age comedy, but we’ll get to that).
The biggest twist? That he’s one of our great filmmakers.
14. “The Last Airbender” (2010)
Shyamalan’s worst – and most egregious – movie by a wide margin, “The Last Airbender” was inspired by the beloved animated series that ran on Nickelodeon for 61 episodes between 2005 and 2008 but none of what made the show so special translated to the adaptation. What was magical in animation feels leaden and uninspired in live-action, even with some nifty visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic and the problematic “color-blind” casting left much to be desired. At the time Shyamalan was coming off the critical and commercial drubbing of “The Happening” and was clearly looking for a surefire success (one that, as the open-ended conclusion implies, was meant to inspire several sequels). But Shyamalan’s first adaptation was a bumpy one, unsatisfying to longtime fans and newcomers alike. Now that’s impressive!
13. “Wide Awake” (1998)
While he is mostly associated with “Twilight Zone”-y thrillers, Shyamalan’s first film was a warm coming-of-age comedic drama that followed a young boy (played by Joseph Cross) who searches for meaning in his life after his grandfather passes. Written in 1995, finished in 1995 but not released until 1998, it still feels unpolished and rough-around-the-edges (and it doesn’t even hit the 90-minute mark). Still, Shyamalan’s skill with young actors (and more seasoned ones, the cast also includes Denis Leary, Dana Delany, Robert Loggia and Rosie O’Donnell) is apparent as is his willingness to be nakedly sentimental, no matter how that comes across. In later films it would feel heartfelt and powerful; in “Wide Awake” it’s just cloying.
12. “After Earth” (2013)
Whew boy. Shyamalan’s name was so toxic that it wasn’t included in any of the marketing materials for “After Earth,” an overblown, hugely expensive sci-fi adventure starring Will Smith and his son Jaden. Marooned on an alien world, Jaden’s character must venture out for supplies and help while Will stays by the spaceship, seriously injured. It’s not a bad movie, exactly – there are some brightly paced action sequences and a pretty cool monster that hunts by sensing fear. But it was such a box office disaster (sunk lower by Sony's huge expectations for the movie, including various proposed sequels and offshoots) that it remains a stain on Shyamalan’s career. The experience was so bad, in fact, that the filmmaker has been funding his own micro-budget movies ever since.
11. “Glass” (2019)
The second wave of Shyamalan’s career is a double-edged sword. He’s getting to tell the smaller, more personal stories that he’s more attracted to. On the other hand, they feel overtly claustrophobic and modest. “Glass” was meant to be the climax of the so-called Eastrail 177 trilogy. And it’s admirable that he was attempting what is essentially his “Avengers” on a budget of $20 million. As it turns out, it’s impossible. Most of the movie takes place in a mental institute where David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) and Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) are all imprisoned. Of course, it all goes to hell and very modestly scaled mayhem ensues. (At one point there is a threat that the movie will get bigger; it’s never followed up on.)
It’s great that Shyamalan was able to conclude his trilogy although the ending feels pat and unconvincing (please teach Shyamalan how YouTube works), with an unnecessarily elaborate final twist. The sad truth is that sometimes long-rumored projects should never be realized.
10. “Split” (2016)
After he got his mojo back with “The Visit” (see below), Shyamalan returned to the genre that made him famous – a more polished, supernaturally-tinged thriller. James McAvoy plays a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder who kidnaps three teenagers and holds them hostage (among them future superstar Anya Taylor-Joy and eventual “White Lotus” breakout Haley Lu Richardson). That’s pretty much it. There’s an overlong, sluggish subplot with Betty Buckley as McAvoy’s therapist. And the final sequence retroactively makes it a sequel to the far superior “Unbreakable.” That twist and McAvoy’s deeply committed, knowing performance (there is nothing approaching psychological realism here) in a role originally earmarked for Joaquin Phoenix, make “Split” make it a ghoulish blast. It’d be nice to see Shyamalan riff on Brian De Palma again. Please?
9. “Lady in the Water” (2006)
At the time “Lady in the Water” was Shyamalan’s most controversial film. It was meant to be the fourth film in his partnership with Disney. Instead, when Disney exec Nina Jacobsen offered notes, the director was deeply offended and left the studio (and its ace marketing team) that had made him a household name. This tsunami of press included a bizarre, Shyamalan-sanctioned book that pitted him as the impassioned artist against the cold corporation. (Disney was still going to make the movie, which makes the hubbub even stranger.) When the movie was released it underwhelmed financially and critically, with many noting the movie’s lurching plot, which mostly consists of characters telling stories to one another. (It was initially inspired by a bedtime story Shyamalan would read his children.) And it’s true – the movie only works in fits and starts.
Paul Giamatti’s sad sack protagonist feels like a parody of other Shyamalan heroes, but it still works and there are some neat visual flourishes courtesy of cinematographer Christopher Doyle and creature designer Mark “Crash” McCreery. But besides that, it’s a little soggy.
8. “Old” (2021)
Sometimes Shyamalan makes ghoulish little movies that feel like overlong “Twilight Zone” episodes. And that’s OK. “Old” already feels like an underrated achievement, a movie built around an irresistibly hooky concept, with enough scary and entertaining sequences that you can overlook its soft third act. Based on a Swiss comic book by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, “Old” is set on a beautiful beach that makes you rapidly age. Shyamalan and his terrifically game cast (including Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee and more) has plenty of fun with the set-up and there are even some touching moments amongst what is essentially high camp. (Props to cinematographer Mike Gioulakis for making a single beach look this cool and different.) This is even more of an accomplishment considering the movie also contains some of Shyamalan’s least human-sounding dialogue he’s ever written. And even though the third act sags, you’ll have been happy to go along for the ride.
7. “The Happening” (2008)
What a glorious goof. Infamously, Shyamalan shopped a screenplay around town called “The Green Effect” that no studio was interested in; instead he rewrote the screenplay based on the feedback the original version had gotten. And “The Happening” was born. A weird, end-of-the-world thriller where plants are producing a noxious chemical that makes humans violently turn on each other (or themselves), it is Shyamalan getting back in touch with the ‘50s B-movie aesthetic that made “Signs” so potently entertaining. A wildly miscast group of actors (led by a perpetually confused Mark Wahlberg as a genius high school science teacher) stumble through the laughable set up. Add in some awkward handling of gore (it was Shyamalan’s first R-rated movie) and a generally wonky tone that weaves between sincerity and utter camp, “The Happening” was widely derided upon first release (as it probably should have been) but rightfully found a cult reputation in the years since.
6. “The Visit” (2015)
The beginning of his second era is born. Made on a shoestring budget by putting another mortgage on his house, Shyamalan entered the found footage genre and teamed with horror super producer Jason Blum to get it across the finish line. The result was “The Visit,” his most enjoyable movie in years. With a plot that is equal parts “Hansel & Gretel” and “Paranormal Activity,” a couple of kids go to visit their grandparents who they’ve never really spent time with. While there, they start to notice something spooky happening, particularly after dark. It’s also one of Shyamalan’s funniest movies -- it co-stars Kathryn Hahn in a brief role and builds to a climax whose twist actually feels earned (and genuinely surprising). Even the found footage aesthetic works for the movie, released during a time when the movement felt like it was coming to an end. A work of creative reinvigoration, “The Visit” made us believe in Shyamalan again.
5. “Knock at the Cabin” (2023)
Shyamalan’s latest is another adaptation, this time of “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul Tremblay. The original version of the script made the 2019 Black List; when Shyamalan was approached to produce he took a look at the material, did a massive rewrite and decided to direct himself. The movie concerns two dads (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) and their young daughter (Kristen Cui), whose remote cabin in the Pennsylvania woods is invaded by four weirdos, led by Dave Bautista (the others are Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Abby Quinn). The invaders claim that each had a vision and that one of the family members must die to prevent the end of the world. And sure enough, weird stuff starts to happen, leading the loving family unit to make a horrible choice. Equal parts the more idiosyncratic mythmaking of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and his own freaky thrillers, it’s a uniquely intoxicating combination.
4. “The Village” (2004)
The last film of Shyamalan’s Disney movies is, in some ways, his most ambitious and, at the same time, most frustrating. Set in a remote Pennsylvania village in the 19th century, which is governed by a strict series of rules set to keep the villagers safe from monsters that live in the woods outside their walls. Shyamalan builds a unique world, with certain colors standing in for “safe” and “dangerous” and a council of elders who set the laws (including Brendan Gleeson, Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt). But when a young blind girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) must venture outside of the village, that’s when the movie becomes even weirder and more enchanting. Unfortunately the final twist feels unearned and aggravating, although it drives home the underlying political themes (Shyamalan has been pretty open about the movie being a critique of the Bush administration and the culture of fear they openly cultivated). One of his most gorgeous movies (it was warmly photographed by Roger Deakins), if anything the new, cheaper iteration of Shyamalan has robbed us of films with this much magnificent sprawl.
3. “Signs” (2002)
Maybe Shyamalan’s most straightforwardly entertaining movie, “Signs” takes the typical alien invasion movie scenario and zeroes it into one family in one farmhouse. Mel Gibson plays a former priest who lost his faith when his wife died in a tragic accident, Joaquin Phoenix is his dopey brother and Gibson’s kids are played by Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin (everyone is terrific). An exercise in pure suspense, it’s also Shyamalan’s scariest movie, particularly in the first half when the family is sneakily terrorized by an unknown presence. At the time Shyamalan was being dubbed “The Next Spielberg” and “Signs” certainly shares more than a few characteristics with Spielberg’s unmade “Night Skies,” which was meant to be the follow-up to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (there are elements of the project in both “E.T.” and “Poltergeist”). The only thing that mars the movie is some truly uninspired creature designs and a deeply unnecessary final shot. But one bad dip doesn’t ruin the entire rollercoaster ride.
2. “The Sixth Sense” (1999)
Imagine having your first film barely open and a year later your sophomore feature becomes a worldwide box office phenomenon and garners six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Shyamalan. That’s quite a reversal. And one that is totally deserving. “The Sixth Sense” is a wonderful film and one that only Shyamalan could have made. Other filmmakers would have emphasized the horror and obsessed over the intricacies of the supernatural elements, while others would have veered towards schmaltz. But Shyamalan’s gift has always been his ability to mix those two elements; the visceral and the sincere.
Bruce Willis’ portrayal of a child psychologist attempting to help a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) who says he sees ghosts is heartbreaking, especially as the actor has been forced to retire from acting. And the final reveal, which put Shyamalan in the awkward position of being the “the twist ending guy,” is still utterly brilliant, even after countless movies have attempted to pull the rug out of audiences in the same way in the years since. “The Sixth Sense” is as good as you remember it.
1. “Unbreakable” (2000)
Following up “The Sixth Sense” was always going to be an impossible task. But instead of going the easy route, Shyamalan did something different and more difficult. And the result was his masterpiece. “Unbreakable” follows David Dunn (a never-better Bruce Willis), a man who slowly discovers that his very average life as a Philadelphia security guard might actually have grander, more mythological implications after he survives a cataclysmic train crash. Shyamalan was deconstructing comic book movie tropes before the comic book movie explosion, with cinematographer Eduardo Serra elegantly framing the action in a series of long, uninterrupted shots in which “panels” spring to life, illuminating the action in discreet, almost subliminal ways. Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as the art dealer who unlocks David’s true calling and Robin Wright as his put-upon wife are both wonderful – Jackson adds some much-needed oomph, while Wright provides the human contours.
Not everything in “Unbreakable” works as well as it did when it first opened; James Newton Howard’s trip-hoppy score is the epitome of year 2000 cheese and that final title card is a befuddling bummer. But “Unbreakable” is undoubtedly Shyamalan’s richest, most affecting movie and also his most personal. At the time of “Unbreakable,” he was at the top of his game and balancing a home life with a wife and children must have been tough. You can feel him wrestling with that in “Unbreakable.” And it makes the movie even more powerful. Even two iffy sequels can’t shake its excellence.