Stephen Arnell

M. Night Shyamalan on screen: seven movies worth watching

M. Night Shyamalan on screen: seven movies worth watching
James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb and Samuel L. Jackson as Mr. Glass in Split Image: Disney/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock
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It would be fair to say that despite working in a similar genre and having a propensity for making cameo appearances in many of his movies, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is no Alfred Hitchcock. That’s not to denigrate Shyamalan; he’s made some entertaining pictures, but he’s unlikely to reach the exalted status of the ‘Master of Suspense’, despite his best efforts.

Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan has also ventured into scripted television with the short-lived Wayward Pines (2015-16) and the current Apple+ psychological horror series Servant, which is picking up some of his best reviews to date.

To an extent the director is the victim of his own success, as the popularity of his breakthrough movie The Sixth Sense led him to attempt a version of its twist ending in almost all of his following pictures. Some have worked, others less so.

Critics have a point when they say that a fair few of the director’s films would work better as shorts or 30-minute TV episodes, as some feel a trifle overextended.

Shyamalan’s career was in steep decline by the time of 2006’s notorious flop Lady in the Water (an incomprehensible modern day mermaid fable full of ‘Scrunts’, ‘Narfs’ and ‘Eatlons’) and it was almost ten years before he enjoyed commercial and critical success again with The Visit (2015) and Split the following year.

His new movie, Old, hews to the high concept formula of Shyamalan’s previous work, concerning as it does a tropical beach where a vacationing family discover that they will age their full lives within one day if they stay there.

Here’s my selection of seven of M Night Shyamalan’s best motion pictures:

Split (2017) – Amazon Rent/Buy

If you’re a connoisseur of over-acting, Split is just the movie for you.

A ‘stealth sequel’ to the director’s earlier Unbreakable (due to an uncredited Bruce Willis cameo at the end), Split stars James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb/aka The Horde, an unfortunate dissociative identity disorder sufferer.

Crumb has 23 distinct personalities of all ages and both sexes, and the 24th, an inhumanly powerful entity known as ‘The Beast’. When The Beast is unleashed, all holy hell breaks loose.

Costing a paltry $9m, Split took in $279m in worldwide box office receipts, cementing Shyamalan’s career revival. McAvoy was praised for his performance as The Horde, although I personally felt that he could have dialled down the scenery chewing a scooch.

The Visit (2015) – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Shyamalan’s comeback movie was a box office smash, its tiny $5m budget reaping $99m at the box office.

The black comedy aspects of this found-footage horror represented a departure from the maestro’s usually rather po-faced fare, earning him rare critical plaudits.

Teenage siblings Becca and Tyler pay their first visit to their mother’s parents, who they have never met due to a falling out over their daughter’s marriage with her high-school teacher. ‘Nana’ and ‘Pop Pop’s remote farmhouse and strange rules (including a 9.30pm curfew, with no leaving the bedroom) soon puts the wind up the kids - and with good cause.

As with Split, Shyamalan’s employment of mental illness as a source of villainy could be seen by many as somewhat dubious.

Devil (2010) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Although directed by John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine), Devil is recognisably part of the Shyamalan oeuvre, as he both produced and wrote the story that Brian Nelson’s screenplay was based on.

A kind of horror movie take on Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (No Exit), Devil posits a scenario where five people are trapped in a lift - a former soldier, a mattress salesman, a security guard, a young woman, and an elderly woman.

Four of whom harbour guilty secrets. One of the five is the devil – but who?

Once again Shyamalan provides an apparently shock ending to the movie, although I suspect many will have already worked out the identity of the Fallen One.

‘L'enfer, c'est les autres' (Hell is other people), as Sartre said in Huis Clos.

The Village (2004) – Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

An idea that’s been cribbed recently for Antebellum (2021) and Alice, The Village attempts to convince us that the setting for the picture is an isolated community of Covington in rural 19th-century Pennsylvania.

Malevolent creatures stalk the woods surrounding the stockaded village, further cloistering the inhabitants from the outside world.

But is what is the unfathomable secret of Covington?

A game cast that includes Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson and Jesse Eisenberg do their best to sell Shyamalan’s deeply silly but still enjoyable yarn.

Signs (2002) – Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

A particularly barmy entry in the Shyamalan canon (rivalling The Happening’s ‘flower-power’ apocalypse), this alien invasion movie is an off the wall counterpart to Spielberg’s later War of the Worlds (2005), where this time the CGI aliens are defeated by humble H20 (and a trusty baseball bat) rather than the common cold in HG Wells novel.

The heavy-handed Christian subtext probably attracted Mel Gibson (who plays former pastor Graham Hess) to the project, together with the licence given to overemote throughout the picture.

That being said, there are some pretty effective scares in Signs when the Hess homestead is under siege by marauding extra-terrestrial critters.

As with the Martians in WOTW and the sniffles/man flu, one would think a basic reconnaissance of the planet by the aliens would have established that water covers 71% of the earth’s surface and that H20 makes up approximately 60% of humans.

And rainfall is frequent on some areas of Terra, especially where humanity tends to dwell.

Back to the drawing board then, alien chaps.

The pre-movie death by car accident of Hess’ wife Colleen was amusingly spoofed the following year by Charlie Sheen in Scary Movie 3.

Unbreakable (2000) – full movie available free to watch on YouTube, otherwise Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Doing what it says on the tin, Bruce Willis is randy average Joe security guard David Dunn, who after an horrific train crash, discovers that he’s literally unbreakable – or as near as dammit.

Samuel L Jackson’s wheelchair bound comic-book fan Elijah Price (aka Mr. Glass) reveals the truth to Willis – that he’s a real-life superhero, possessing superstrength, near invulnerability and an evil-detecting form of ESP. When Dunn shakes Glass’s hand, the truth of the train crash is revealed…

Shyamalan attempted to forge his own Marvel style universe by bringing back Willis and Jackson’s characters to join James McAvoy in the underwhelming Glass (2019).

Sixth Sense (1999) – Amazon Rent/Buy

There are two ways to approach The Sixth Sense if you’ve already seen the picture before.

You either find something else to watch as you know the famous twist ending – or rewatch and pick up on all the clues Shyamalan has carefully laid out that you may have missed.

An understandably (in the context of the movie) hangdog Bruce Willis plays Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist with an interesting new client, Cole Sear (Seer?), a nine year-old boy (Haley Joel Osment) who can see ‘dead people’.