The India-born American filmmaker- M. Night Shyamalan rose to fame with the phenomenal success of his film ‘The Sixth Sense’ released in 1999. Overnight he became a household name and one of the most celebrated auteurs in the country. The release of his master thrillers like ‘Signs’ and superhero enigma ‘Unbreakable’ earned him further fandom and critical acclaim, and he was even touted to be the next Spielberg and Hitchcock. So much so that the director-screenwriter himself admitted that the two ace filmmakers were a huge inspiration and influence over his films.
Rife with several artistic traits, the filmmaker brought together wondrous storytelling elements in his works- eerie pace, supernatural and fairytale-ish components, Gothic imagery, creative voice, and his very famous capsizing twists. However, success was short-lived for the director as the brouhaha died down soon after with the release of ‘Lady in the Water’ and ‘The Village’ that were greeted with a sour response. The tart reception continued with the oncoming of his newer releases, as the once celebrated elements of his filmmaking techniques were mocked and his ideas were accused of being stale and pretentious.
Related Read to M. Night Shyamalan: Every David Fincher Film Ranked
But be that as it may, the ‘misunderstood genius’ (as believed by some critics) got some of his mojo back with the release of his Superhero sequel ‘Split’ in 2016. ‘The Visit’ was another one of the last releases that helped him redeem his proficiency and brilliance as a filmmaker. But to most of us, his story will always be that of a tragic overachiever who set a bar too high, triumphed too young, and then got crushed under the weight of over-expectations.
As conjectures about his artistic glory continue with his new releases, we revisited some of Shyamalan’s films and ranked them in the order from worst to best. We have omitted his first film ‘Praying With Anger’ released in 1992 as it was not released widely and was only premiered at festivals. Have a look at the list below!
13. The Last Airbender (2010)
An adaptation of the Nickelodeon super hit anime ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’, this film went wrong in every way it could and it is a tragic pity that it did so. Widely acclaimed as not just the worst works of the filmmaker but also one of the worst studio productions ever made, the beauty of the film got lost in explanatory dialogues and dull narration. To top that up with a frightening lack of acting skills and embarrassing lighting sequences, you will have a faint idea of what we are talking about.
Similar Read to Night Shyamalan Films: 10 Best Sci-Fi Films of the Decade (2010s)
Further, the narrative felt over rushed, misconceived, and awash with any linearity in the visual logic, with voiceovers and expositions to extrapolate the lengthy storyline. Understandably so, as the feature film was a squeezed version of a 3 season long anime series. Lambasted by the critics for a lot of reasons, Shyamalan failed to recreate the magical charm of the charismatic lands and left the viewers cheated of their time. It also garnered some criticism on the grounds of racism as heroes v/s villains were white people against color.
12. After Earth (2013)
To put it very bluntly, After Earth is also considered to be one of the worst works of Shyamalan and the only reason why we have put it above ‘The Last Airbender’ is because this one has an edge in terms of its acting prowess. After Earth is the story of father-son duo- Raige and Kitai (played by real life father-son duo Will Smith and Jaden Smith) who crash-land get stranded on a foreign ‘quarantined’ planet when on a mission and struggle to be rescued. This ‘foreign’ planet is the Earth, as the film is based at a far more futuristic time when humans have found life and have moved to other planets as the Earth was no longer fit to live in.
After Earth is almost like an extended version of one of the wildlife shows that we watched on the Discovery channel when young. The scenery is beautiful and the wilderness has been captured in all its glory with an action hero in the midst of it. Other than that, pretty much nothing happens in the film. It can also be touted as a video game sequence where Player 1 (Katai) has to overcome a certain number of hurdles to rescue the mission in order to save himself and the princess (Raige). Well, we all know how that ends. Duh! Full points for predictability to this one.
11. The Happening (2008)
While it is still debatable if The Village had a more deceitful climax or The Happening, we would like to place our bets on The Happening. The film is a supernatural thriller with a hands-on environmental degradation message. The first half of The Happening sets the stage for a thrilling viral outbreak movie where we see cars crashing, people stabbing each other, construction workers jumping off scaffoldings as the virus begins to attack their systems. While our protagonists rush off to safety and try to decipher the cause of the petrifying events, it is revealed that the virus was being produced and transferred from plants.
Related Read to M. Night Shyamalan Films: 15 Best Movies That Take Place Within 24 Hours
The viewers who had pinned their hopes to the latter half of the film only ended up being infinitely disappointed as it turned out the vengeful trees just decided to stop being insouciant murderers right at the time when our protagonists were about to sacrifice their lives. Shyamalan’s fans who were already at testy waters with the preposterous twists renounced the filmmaker at this point. Furthermore, The Happening also did not have rounded characters, Zooey Deschanel and Mark Wahlberg were not convincing as two people who deeply loved and cared for each other. And John Leguizamo, who was actually placed in the screenplay to evoke empathy, failed to do so.
10. Old (2021)
Old’ is Shyamalan’s latest thriller that was released in 2021 but if you are a Shyamalan fan (read: critic), you will find yourself realizing the uncanny similarity between ‘Old’ and one of his previous films ‘The Happening’, which much to our dismay doesn’t work in either. Just like always, Shyamalan weaved the narrative with beautiful geography and an A+ cast, and just like always, he also managed to tout an interesting hook. But unfortunately, yet again, he failed to live up to the standards of the premise and eventually gave way to a crumbling climax.
‘Old’ is the story of the protagonist Cappa family who goes on a tropical desert vacation where they meet several other couples and families. Together, they decide to go on a day outing adventure on a private island. Minutes after they arrive, they notice preposterous occurrences and realize that they are trapped on the island with no means to go back. Less than halfway into the film, the group realizes that the island has a much faster time rate- so much so that young kids grow up, mate, and even deliver a baby in a span of hours. As ‘Old’ marks the big revelation just at the midpoint of the narrative, the rest of the film is an impatient frustrated watch leading to a lousy climax.
9. The Village (2004)
The Village came off of the success of three back-to-back films of Shyamalan- The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, so naturally, the audience expectations were at their peak from the ‘gifted’ director. But, The Village turned out to be the vantage point from where the downfall of the celebrated auteur would begin. The Village follows the story of an isolated community that lived in seclusion and is forbidden to go into the surrounding sinister woods for the fear of the baleful forces residing in them. For the better part of the film, Shyamalan is successful in creating a creepy atmosphere and instilling a sense of fearful paranoia. He builds this tension with such ease and adroitness, that it hurts to tolerate and sit through the laughable climax.
Also, Read: 10 Best Joaquin Phoenix Movie Performances
Considered to be a comment on the increasing vices and a nostalgic reminder of life in simpler times, the massive reveal and the abominable twist is that the film was always taking place in the current times. The elders of the village had deceived the youngsters into believing an alternate universe that co-existed very well within the American society (nature sanctuary to be precise). The bigger tragedy is that this gigantic deceptive reveal could be circumvented in order to achieve a perfectly fine scary horror film. But the disobliging gimmick and an unreasonable urge for twist endings lifted off the trust of most loyal viewers.
8. Lady in the Water (2006)
Lady in the Water is supposedly the passion project of the writer-director M. Night Shyamalan but unfortunately, it fails to exhibit any such brilliance or passionate trait but just turns out to be ludicrous storytelling. The film is about an apartment superintendent who discovers a woman transgressing in the society swimming pool. He learns she is a narf- water nymph of the highest order who is being hunted by the scrunt- a supernatural beast. While the plotline mostly delved into the fight between the two supernatural creatures aided by the Narf best man and our protagonist Cleve, the premise of the film was nothing but sheer mockery.
Related Read to M. Night Shyamalan Films: Every Christopher Nolan Film Ranked
Shyamalan decided that the reason for a supernatural being to enter earth will be to enlighten a future writer in order to save humanity through his works. Quite inevitably, the premise gets lost after the initial introduction and the film which was originally intended to be a fantasy psychological thriller got reduced to a poorly written drama where Cleve must draw on the skills of the apartment residents in order to liberate the water nymph. On closer examination, however, one can see that ‘Lady in the Water’ was Shyamalan’s most ‘Shyamalanish’ film as it was heavily infused with Shyamalan’s favorite elements- supernatural, internal mythos, fairytale fable, thrilling genre, and an eerie setting. Additionally, it will also be imperative to note that the film was an arrogant comment and a larger critique as he cast himself as the ‘misunderstood writer’ capable of changing the world through his writings.
7. Signs (2002)
Signs was one of the most difficult films to rank because of its uncanny nature that dwindles between a sheer brilliant premise and a batshit climax. It is heralded as the last film after which Shyamalan’s accolades and commendations were reconsidered. Signs is about an alien invasion of the earth but what sets the film apart from the regular run-of-the-mill alien invasion films is that it follows a very personal account of events through the story of the Hess Family. Following very creepy and occasionally frightening sequences, Signs is sure to keep you on the edge for the most part of it.
Also, Read : Exploring The Inevitable Dualities In Rosemary’s Baby
Shyamalan adeptly builds tension throughout by showing glimpses of the alien monster instead of the whole. That helps in instilling fear in the audiences pertaining to an invasion of privacy and a threat to life safety instead of diving headfirst into the disposition of the extraterrestrial beings. The brief inlay into shadows, hazy figures, frightening hands, etc., works well in inducing a spine-chilling mysterious vibe to the film. This follows the electrifying touchdown episode when the aliens finally attack the Hess household and all hell breaks loose. What succeeds this stunner sequence, however, is nothing but sheer mockery and heart-breaking revelation. The aliens are susceptible to water. Water! It almost felt like a substandard explanation for a film like Signs. Did the aliens not think through their mission before embarking to attack a planet occupied 71% by water? Did the writer of the film get exhausted by the end to think of a capable denouement? We will never know!
6. Glass (2019)
Glass was much awaited by the fans ever since the release of Split which was a quasi-sequel to the auteur’s first Superhero film ‘Unbreakable’ from his Eastrail 177 trilogy. The subtle revelation of David Dunn (Bruce Willis) towards the end of Split was enough to weave a whole string of over expectations around Glass and we believe that this is probably one major reason why Glass was received with mixed reviews. Glass was the confrontation between the blockbuster hero David Dunn, villain Elijah Price (from Unbreakable) and the Beast (from the Split).
Related Read to M. Night Shyamalan Films: 12 Films That Explore Mental Illness
Idiosyncratic to the Shyamalan style of films, Glass is a claustrophobic psychodrama that uses intelligible narrative tropes to proceed the storyline. While most of the film was dominated by the majestic and endearing presence of James McAvoy- but as a fan, it would have been more gratifying to see more of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Shyamalan heavily borrowed elements from superhero fiction, comic books, and supernatural which aided in giving a definitive and flattering look and form to this film. And contradictory to much critical opinion, Glass landed just fine and was efficiently able to weave together the split ends of the two prequels.
Read The Complete Review of Glass Here
5. Split (2016)
Split is known to be the resurgent and redeeming work of Shyamalan that brought him back his faded luster. A claustrophobic psychological thriller mixed with a dash of supernaturalism, Split is by far one of the best works of Shyamalan. It is the story of four teenage girls being detained by a captor who suffers from a dissociative identity disorder. James McAvoy plays the central protagonist of Kevin who has 23 current personalities and is on the verge of unleashing his 24th personality as the film transgresses. On the surface, Split is the archetype good v/s evil diegesis, but on looking closely, it is much more nuanced and layered than just that.
Also, Read: Why The Oscars Need To Start Recognizing Horror Films
Kevin is the thematic protagonist cum antagonist who holds the young girls captive. But much to the surprise of the viewers, he manages to evoke a sense of empathy for him. The viewers feel for his personal trauma and while they condemn him for the heinous act, there is also a side when their whole hearts go out to him. Shyamalan has successfully crafted the narrative where he balances between horror, logic, and reasonable storyteller. His characters are very poised- no one person is monstrous or horrid, they are all shades of human emotions. Besides, till the very end Split comes across as a standalone wholesome piece, with first-rate acting, directorial, and storytelling techniques. It was only in the epilogue that Shyamalan introduced his plot twist and declared that the film was a sequel to his 2000 hit Unbreakable. Thankfully, this time, after a long time, it worked in his favor and the fans were left feeling satisfied and excited for the upcoming sequel.
Read The Complete Review of Split Here
4. Wide Awake (1998)
Wide Awake was one of Shyamalan’s earlier works and his first studio production. Although the coming of age, feel-good family film has been touted as one of the most generic films and it lies forgotten in the archives of cinema, personally it is one of our favorites. Wide Awake falls in the zone where it introduces Shyamalan as a promising young director with a unique cinematic vision. The film portends quintessential Shyamalan’s ploys of his obsession with the supernatural, children at the center of the story, sci-fi, and his stupefying (now dreaded) plot twists. The elements worked in his favor as they had not been overused up until then.
Related Read to M. Night Shyamalan Films: Every Denis Villeneuve Film Ranked
Wide Awake is a story of 10-year old Joshua Beal who faces existential crises after the death of his beloved grandfather. The boy goes through a number of events in order to reach God to question him about the well-being of his deceased grandfather. Infused with short gags and cutesy shenanigans of the two boys- Joshua and his best friend Dave O’Hara, there are episodes that will surely induce a chuckle. Although it cannot be denied that the film does get preachy at a point, barring that, it has fairly low points to be criticized on. And even though it does not have awe-inducing elements and it is not his masterstroke, it is definitely better than the films that followed after.
3. The Visit (2015)
The Visit is known as Shyamalan’s ‘return to form’ film owing to its rich narrative, efficient storyline, and adept filmmaking ethics. The film is shot in an American found-footage documentary style with the two kids Becca and Tyler at the center. The kids go to meet their grandparents in their farmhouse who had been estranged from their mother for the last 15 years. Unlike ‘The Sixth Sense’, the filmmaker here does not draw on the sense of feeling of the kids but chooses to showcase the creepiness of the setting through the ominous surroundings and the eccentric behavior of the grandparents.
Also, Read: Horror Movies Then vs Now: How Have Filmmakers Managed To Get You Cowering In Fear In The 21st Century
The inquisitive kids start the quest to find out the truth about their freaky grandparents and in the process stumble upon bizarre and scary evidence. Ostensibly a horror film, the film is occasionally insidious which advances to the climax which is a spine-chilling rescue operation for the kids to free themselves. Seething with grotesque imagery and a baffling turn of sequences, the film induces horror and claustrophobia through shaky camera footage especially in closed spaces like basements and sheds light on issues like dementia, incontinence, and old-age in general. Some critics have even touted it as the ‘deranged interpretation’ to ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in a more fearsome and unnerving way.
2. Unbreakable (2000)
Arguably one of the best works of director-screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan, Unbreakable is one of the most brilliant deconstructions of the superhero genre to date. Following his supernatural drama ‘The Sixth Sense’, it came at a time when the Marvel universe had not yet been built and so the film is also considered a lot ahead of its times. Unbreakable is the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who solely survives a fatal train crash, is met by a comic book aficionado Elijah Price and then journeys into discovering that he is a superhero.
Related Read to M. Night Shyamalan: 15 Best Films Set In A Mental Asylum
The film borrows greatly from the comic book culture of America and even has numbers and data to back the facts up. But the unique aspect in the film is that Unbreakable presents its superhero devoid of the usual spectacle and pageant-ic armor. It has comic book elements strewn about in the entirety of the film- like David Dunn’s jacket as an alternate to the cape, weakness for water, the color scheme for hero and villain respectively, etc. Shyamalan also emphasized the human version of superheroes and villains and up until the denouement, he focuses on their individual parallel journeys and the horrendous traumas they had to deal with. All in all, Unbreakable is one of his best screenplays, and one of the most intriguing, realistic, and raw superhero films of all time.
1.The Sixth Sense (1999)
It was a tough call to choose between ‘Unbreakable’ and ‘The Sixth Sense’ as Shyamalan’s best and the latter won by an iota of votes. Widely known as Shyamalan’s most successful films, The Sixth Sense was also one of his earlier works that showcased his sheer brilliance at filmmaking and managed to catch his viewers off guard owing to a commendable climax. The film is horror, thriller, and drama in bits, and while it eschews using age-old horror devices and ploys, it still manages to keep its viewers on the edge of their seats. M. Night Shyamalan uses subtle horror details to touch upon the genre and hence ends up creating a more flavorful and classical-feely film.
Also, Read 10 Great Foreign Horror Films You Can Watch Right Now
The Sixth Sense is a story about a psychiatrist Crowe (Bruce Willis) and his child patient- 10-year-old Cole (Haley Joel Osment) who sees dead people. While both the psychiatrist and the kid are dealing with their own traumas and issues, they come together to be there for each other. The film is not conventionally horror or has any of the traditional terrorizing moments. Rather it has been designed with the cold and eerie vibe that is accentuated by the occasional depiction of bizarre events and appearances of frightful looking dead people. While ‘The Sixth Sense’ garnered a lot of appreciation and recognition for Shyamalan, it also established that his creative vision was a force to be reckoned with.
What do you think of our ranking? Would you have ranked them differently? Let us know in the comments below.