6. The Village (2004)
“The Village” is where the tide started turning against Shyamalan. Many fans and critics felt that the once-promising director was losing it with his indulgent scripts and controversial twist endings. In fact, said twist ending angered and frustrated a lot of people and upon re-watching it’s easy to see why.
With a stellar cast featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard and Adrien Brody, the plot concerns an isolated village that’s constantly haunted by mysterious creatures. Naturally, the inhabitants live in paranoia and fear and dare not venture to far from home. But when one of the characters has to go out into the woods in search of medical supplies, the plot becomes something else entirely.
At his best, Shyamalan is a master at suspense and world building and “The Village” is no exception. There are some pretty amazing scenes, particularly Ivy’s lone journey in the woods that’s up there with some of the best scenes Shyamalan has done. There’s so much to love here from James Newton Howard’s amazing score, Roger Deakins’ always perfect cinematography, and the dynamic acting.
Then, of course, there’s the notorious ending which awkwardly undoes everything good, raising more questions of logic than it cares to answer. At this point in his career it would’ve been more surprising if the twist ending was that there’s no twist ending. The whole thing probably would’ve worked better that way, even if it would’ve become a different film entirely.
5. The Visit (2015)
Returning to a smaller budget and the horror genre with the new addition of found footage, Shyamalan learns from his mistakes and saves his career in the process with this modern-day Hansel and Gretel.
Sister and brother Becca and Tyler head over to visit their grandparents, Nana and Pop Pop, whom they’ve never met, on their isolated farm. At first, the grandparents seem like your typical nice grandparents doing with the kids what typical nice grandparents do, until things start getting weird and creepy.
Starting fresh and on a clean slate is the best thing Shyamalan could’ve done for his career at that point. On a relatively modest budget of $5 million, the film paid off big at the box office, earning $98 million. And it definitely looks as though the filmmaker had some deep self reflection before making this one.
Balancing horror and comedy is no easy feat and Shyamalan’s script handles it amicably with the senior characters and their senior moments, as well as Tyler’s funny rapping to the more sinister moments like the crawlspace chase scene and the forbidden basement.
There’s also the signature Shyamalan twist ending that at least doesn’t want to make you yell obscenities at the screen. Taking a simple premise with a relatively good unknown cast gives the whole film a breath of fresh air and showed that Shyamalan’s talents are still alive and kicking.
4. Split (2016)
Building on the momentum of “The Visit” while still keeping things relatively small and intimate, “Split” finds Shyamalan taking things more seriously and returning to full form with his trademarks with one of his best films.
James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with 23 different personalities and a 24th that may be the most dangerous of them all. He kidnaps and imprisons three teenage girls in an underground facility and the girls, notably Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey, realize that the only way to escape is to outwit their unstable captor.
Anchored by McAvoy’s powerful performance with his piercing eyes, the actor gives each one of his personalities a different trait while subtlety linking all of them together. Taylor-Joy gives the other terrific performance as the main protagonist of the film, an outsider whose past tragedy becomes her strength in understanding and escaping Kevin’s clutches. The other two girls, however, aren’t as interesting or well-developed.
Steeped in a claustrophobic environment with the cinematography and a set that adds to the thrills, Shyamalan keeps a tight grip on the film. The twists and turns in this one feel almost natural and part of the story, instead of undermining or calling attention to itself for all the wrong reasons.
Linked to Shyamalan’s earlier film “Unbreakable” and a new one, “Glass”, set to arrive in 2019 as part of a shared universe, it’s safe to say that with “Split”, Shyamalan returned to what made him such an exciting mainstream filmmaker in the beginning of his career.
3. Signs (2002)
Taking on the influence of one of his childhood heroes, Steven Spielberg, and putting his own style on it, “Signs” sees Shyamalan at the height of his powers before it all went horribly wrong.
Mel Gibson plays a former priest who has lost faith after his wife tragically dies in a car crash. Discovering crop circles on his farm, he soon realizes that they are a sign of extraterrestrial life and goes about protecting his family as mass paranoia covers the world.
Gibson gives a sympathetic and heartfelt performance as Father Graham Hess and the chemistry between him and his local baseball has-been brother, played by Joaquin Phoenix, gives the film an interesting dynamic. The children, played by Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, are great as well.
Could “Signs” be Shyamalan’s most polarizing film? There are those who love it right down to the credit roll and those who disregard it on account of the ending, in what’s perceived to be one of the dumbest aliens who’ve ever visited Earth next to the ones in “War of the Worlds” (ironically a Spielberg film).
The difference being the ones in “War of the Worlds” touched down for all out war, where the ones here are more about walking around at birthday parties and scaring the shit out of people. Its ending may be misunderstood, along with the extraterrestrial beings themselves.
“Signs” is without a doubt Shyamalan’s best directed film. The tension and suspense s over from the screen into the viewer’s mind, making you question and wonder about every little sound on the roof or static heard on the speakers.
The masterfully directed broadcast of an alien at a Brazilian birthday party, the alien locked in a room, and the long wait till the morning all add to the reasons why this might be Shyamalan’s best work.
2. Unbreakable (2000)
Back before superheroes were the phenomenon they are now (or were, if the tide is truly starting to turn), Shyamalan made a unique character-driven superhero thriller that’s quite unlike anything that came before or has come since.
When Bruce Willis’ David Dunn is the sole survivor of a gruesome train crash, Elijah Prince, a comic book store owner played by Samuel L. Jackson, who suffers from a rare brittle bone disease, becomes convinced that he’s the world’s first superhero and sets about to help him navigate his powers.
An origin story at heart, this isn’t your typical big budget superhero film as it focuses more on drama. Taking time with its characters as Dunn reluctantly explores his powers with Prince manipulating him every step of the way, it’s more of a character study and it works all the better for it.
Jackson steals the show as one of the best villains the superhero genre has seen. Excellently played in one of the finest performances the actor has delivered, and excellently written by Shyamalan, Prince is perhaps the most memorable character the writer/director has delivered; a depressed man who suffers from fragile bones who’s found solace in comic books until he finally finds the hero he’s been searching for his whole life.
Along with a typically good performance from Willis, the two characters mirror each other perfectly while being complete opposites – Dunn a superhuman who needs to trust in his abilities, and Prince a fragile man who overcompensates with obsessive confidence.
Shyamalan delivers an exciting story which is the most unique entry in his filmography. Deserving of its cult classic status, it’s a shame he that he never went back to it earlier until he linked it 16 years later with “Split” and the upcoming “Glass”.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
For better or for worse, “The Sixth Sense” is the film that introduced Shyamalan to the world, introducing his themes, his style and of course, his trademark surprise endings. A pop culture sensation back when it was released, the supernatural thriller captured an era’s imagination and upon a revisit, as Larry David would say, still is: “Pretty, pretty good.”
Bruce Willis plays a child psychologist who tries to help a troubled and isolated child who can talk to and see dead people. As the two form a close relationship, they help each other face their demons with an ending that changes their lives forever (psst! mostly Bruce Willis).
From the atmosphere, the spooks, and score, it’s all ace. Of course, it wouldn’t work as well if it wasn’t for the performances; Willis, Toni Collette and especial Haley Joel Osment deliver spectacular performances that elevate the film to a modern classic.
There are classic scenes throughout, particularly Osment’s Cole encountering a ghost in his tent. And that surprise ending may be tame based on today’s standards, but it still works within the film even when you know it’s coming.
It’s the magic that Shyamalan would try to recapture through his career. It’s what started his string of great films before it all went horribly wrong. The perfect example of a young filmmaker finding his voice and harnessing his talents to offer the world something new (whatever that means), “The Sixth Sense” is Shyamalan’s signature film, his most successful, acclaimed and remembered, and for once, you can’t argue with the masses.