Depending on who you talk to, M. Night Shyamalan is a master of suspense, leading his audience into believing that a film will go in one direction, only to pull the rug out from under us with a surprise twist. At least, that is what one group will tell you. To others, he is a director who cheaply abuses his fake out gimmick as an ironic way to remain relevant despite his consistent failures as a filmmaker.
Love him or hate him, M. Night Shyalaman does, indeed, take pleasure in titillating his audience with a fun twist ending, which he especially made clear with the resolution(s) of his comic book genre analysis, Glass, but more on that later. While twist endings have certainly been a defining aspect of his over the past couple of decades, there are endings that have left us in the deepest state of shock, as well as those that left us sheepishly underwhelmed.
Without taking overall movie quality into account, let’s take a look at M. Night Shyamalan’s most memorable twists, ranked from “Really? What the heck?” to “REAAAAALLLLLY?! WHAT THE HECK!” Of course, I will be discussing the ending of these films, so SPOILER ALERT!
9. Lady In The Water (2006)
You’re probably wondering, Why even include this one on the list? There’s no twist. Well, that is precisely why it is ranked at the bottom. The twist is laughable, wholly inconsequential, and comes so early in the film that it is easy to disregard it as a twist.
M. Night Shyamalan’s seventh effort as writer and director is about a bedtime story character named... Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) who becomes stranded at an apartment complex maintained by superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Heep must protect Story from vile creatures trying to keep her from returning to her fantasy world. Meanwhile, Story also tells Heep that her purpose for visiting the human world is to become the muse for an aspiring author destined to write a book that will inspire future leaders to make the world a better place, but only after the challenging concepts he proposes lead to his assassination. The author is played by M. Night Shyalaman.
That is the twist, people. The movie you thought was a modern variation of the fairy tale is really Shyamalan’s personal indictment on the people who criticized his own writing. This could have been more easily forgivable or even accepted as an intriguing plot point if not for the self-indulgent decision to cast himself as the writer who will one day save the world and die doing it. Lady in the Water’s “hidden” message is so on the nose that it only did less to legitimize M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation as a dramatist and more as an unintentional comedic genius.
I suppose his next film (and the next on our list) was his way of swerving into that skid.
8. The Happening (2008)
People who hate The Happening are those who do not know how to have fun with a movie regardless of quality. Do not get me wrong: as a serious disaster movie, I think it’s not great, but as a satire of disaster movies, I think it’s brilliant.
M. Night Shyamalan cast Mark Wahlberg in the, then, unlikely role of a high school biology teacher struggling to protect his wife (Zooey Deschanel) and his best friend’s daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) after a mysterious disaster occurs that, somehow, is resulting in a sweep of fatalities across the country. The marketing material kept the actual “happening” of the film a secret, as well as the hilariously bizarre moments the film is now infamous for (“Whaaaaat? Nooo!”), but we discover in the film’s opening that something is causing people to take their own lives. Intriguing (pre-Bird Box) setup, but wait until you hear the twist!
Instead of widespread mania or biological warfare as characters speculate at first, the earth’s vegetation is emitting a poisonous gas out of revenge against human beings. While this could have been M. Night Shyamalan’s attempt at environmental commentary, it is impossible not to laugh at the idea, especially with the robotic acting, off-putting dialogue, and other head scratcher moments from beginning to end. Really, I think he knew what he was doing with this one and we just weren’t ready for him to show his darkly humorous side, but it does not save the twist from feeling empty.
At least it was not as ambiguous as this one...
7. Signs (2002)
Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs that alien invaders are among us in M. Night Shyamalan’s third mainstream thriller. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a former minister, having lost his faith following the death of his wife, whose family is plagued by suspicions that Earth may be under attack. The biggest red flag is the huge crop circle that formed on Gibson’s farm just overnight.
The film’s climax sees the family in seemingly better times having survived the night of the predicted invasion, until they discover an intruder in their midst: one of their extraterrestrial visitors, holding Graham’s son Morgan (Rory Culkin) with sinister intent. Suddenly, Graham has a flashback of the last thing his late wife said to him: “Tell Merrill to swing away,” prompting him to tell his high school baseball star brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), to grab his old slugger and take a good swing at the alien. In all the commotion, the alien knocks over a glass of water on the table (which there are many laying around, thanks to Graham’s germaphobic daughter, played by a young Abigail Breslin), which drips down his skin and appears to have a deadly effect on him. So, with a mix of melee fighting skills and a generous dose of acidic water, Merrill manages to successfully defeat the alien.
There are two twists that I count in this scenario and I do not care much for either of them. For one, the idea of our otherworldly enemy being allergic to water is a blatant rip-off of H.G. Wells’ common cold-sensitive martians in The War of the Worlds, and, on the other hand, I cannot decide what to make of Graham’s wife’s psychic vision. Is there supposed to be a deeper symbolic meaning to this reveal, did the wife have some secret connection to the aliens, or was it just thrown in there for convenience? Unfortunately, I have to go with that last option, personally, which is heartbreaking since Signs is on fire with some very effective moments of suspense until the final letdown.
Some would actually say the same about this next film.
6. Unbreakable (2000)
Most comic book movies glorify the idea of being a superhero as the best thing that could ever happen to you. For David Dunn (Bruce Willis), it marks a point of depression for him. You can’t really blame him though, since he makes his revelation by being the only survivor of a fatal trainwreck.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s intriguing analysis of superhero mythology, Unbreakable, Dunn discovers, denies, and comes to accept his superhuman abilities (strength, indestructibility, and sensing evil through physical touch) with the help of a comic book enthusiast, who is the complete opposite of indestructible, named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). The ending of the film sees Dunn shaking hands with his new friend and, suddenly, his “sixth sense” kicks into gear, allowing his see a vision of Price sabotaging the same train he survived. In that moment, Dunn realizes that his ally is really his arch enemy, an aspiring supervillain searching for his superhero.
There is a variety of reasons to love this twist, even if you are one of those who claims to have seen it coming. Not only does it serve as a potent, thought-provoking indictment on comic book tropes, but also a commentary on the dangerous effects of obsession. Price is so determined to prove that his comic book fantasies are reality that he willfully assumes the role of the antagonist (and alias Mr. Glass) and goes to grave lengths to carry out his mission, leading to his downfall.
Of course, it would not be a superhero movie without an arch villain, so the reveal does lose momentum in that regard. Perhaps if the audience did not know it was a comic book movie...
5. Split (2017)
After a series of embarrassing critical and commercial failures that I will not mention for the sake of our readers’ mental health, M. Night Shyamalan finally made what appeared to be comeback with 2015’s The Visit (more on that later). This made audiences skeptical if he could make another killing two years later with this thriller starring James McAvoy as man with dissociative identity disorder holding three teenage girls captive.
The movie’s final girl, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) manages to narrowly escape James McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb after he takes on the persona of his strongest and most animalistic identity, The Beast, but only by proving that she, like Kevin, is also a victim of an abusive childhood. M. Night Shyalaman tricks the audience into believing this is the inevitable twist we have been waiting for, until a bonus scene reveals the film’s true purpose. We see two women chatting about Crumb’s arrest at a diner, comparing him to another man who was arrested about 17 years prior whose name they cannot recall, until Bruce Willis as David Dunn interjects with their answer: “Mr. Glass.”
“Split is an Unbreakable sequel?!” is what audiences gasped as they walked out of the theater. It was a perplexing, yet warmly welcomed reveal that showed how Split was the beginning of David Dunn’s next villain. It helped M. Night Shyalaman, once again, gain relevance as an innovator of the surprise ending and had fans excited to see where his comic book-inspired universe would go next.
Depending on who you ask, the next and final chapter in the Unbreakable universe served as Shyamalan’s most ambitious venture into twisty storytelling yet.
4. Glass (2019)
Which leads me to this follow-up. If you go to an M. Night Shyamalan movie for his signature twist ending, Glass, his conclusion to story set up in Unbreakable and Split is the ultimate experience for fans because it is chock full of them.
After learning that his next big adversary is on the loose, David Dunn (Bruce Willis reprising his superhuman Unbreakable role) tracks down James McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb (nicknamed The Horde in the media) only for both of them to be arrested and placed in an insane asylum, where Dunn is reunited by his former friend-turned-enemy Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson). The trio of living comic book caricatures are monitored by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychologist who specializes in convincing people who believe they are superheroes that their abilities are an illusion. Inevitably, we learn Staple’s true intentions, as well as a couple of other revelations - all within the span of about 20 minutes.
First, Crumb’s father was killed on the same train Dunn survived, leading to the abuse he endured by his mentally ill single mother. Second, Staple is actually a member of a covert organization with intent to keep the existence of superheroes and villains a secret to the public, explaining her unusual job title. Finally, Elijah Price copied video evidence of David Dunn and Kevin Wendell Crumb’s abilities, which Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy returning from Split), Dunn’s son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), and Price’s mother (Charlayne Woodard) reveal to the world over social media, making Staple’s mission a failure.
Despite how the conclusion(s) of Glass faced criticism for having a few too many endings and an underwhelming hero-villain battle at the climax, watching the compendium of this three-chapter comic book analysis come to a close was satisfying for me, especially given how M. Night Shyamalan's twist ties these characters together. It was a unique distraction from the usual slam-bang-boom we get from superhero movies, so as a twist it worked.
M. Night Shyalaman managed the reverse effect with this next film.
3. The Village (2004)
The Happening is hilarious schlock. Lady In The Water is irritatingly quirky. The Village is just a bland period piece spliced with a monster movie with characters who should have invested in coffee crops, until you find out what is really going on.
A community of 19th-century townsfolk lives in constant fear of the creatures that hide in the woods outside their quaint village, desperate to stay loyal to the agreement that as long as no one steps foot in the woods, the creatures will leave them alone. When young villager Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) is injured, his fiancee, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) feels she has no choice but to enter the woods in search of the proper medicine to nurse Lucius back to health, despite her blindness. Yet, her lack of sight is the exact reason the village Elders are willing to let her take this journey. Why?
Not only are the creatures non-existent rumors, as the chief Elder (Willaim Hurt) reveals halfway through, but all that exists outside of the woods is… modern society. Yes, the villagers are pawns in a social experiment kept secret by the park rangers who own the land the village was built on and the monsters are the Elders’ ploy to shield its people from the truth. I don’t care if you claim to have guessed that halfway, if you felt confused, or if you think this is the pinnacle of M. Night Shyamalan’s laziness as a writer, I stand firmly by my belief that is one of the more clever ideas the filmmaker has come up with and makes The Village a far more interesting film than I would have initially expected.
I also did not expect to like this next film's twist as much as I did.
2. The Visit (2015)
M. Night Shyamalan was rotting in movie jail, as far as former fans were concerned, when he teamed up with horror movie wizard producer Jason Blum for this hopeful comeback. I would call The Visit, the filmmaker’s first try into the found footage genre, a surprise success in that regard, particularly for being a better attempt at his darkly comic sensibilities after The Happening and for its big surprise near the end.
What at first appears to be teenager Becca’s (Olivia DeJonge) fun attempt to document her and her brother, Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) first ever visit to their grandparents’ house soon turns into video evidence of their fight for survival as “Nana” (Deanna Dunagan) and “Pop Pop” (Peter McRobbie) show early signs of not being right in the head. Nana runs through the house naked, Pop Pop keeps dressing up for a non-existent costume party, and hints at the old couples’ extraterrestrial lineage are mentioned at one point. It is challenging for the children to accept that their grandparents are insane, until a revealing video chat with their mother (Kathryn Hahn) saves them from worrying if they are destined to inherit their mental illness because those crazy people are not who they say they are.
“Nana” and “Pop Pop” are actually mental patients that the real Nana and Pop Pop used to visit, until the imposters escaped, murdered them, and assimilated themselves into their home before the children arrived. In a film filled with laughably bizarre insanity, the twist is a very creepy and devilishly funny discovery that serves as the film’s second biggest “Oh crap!” As for the biggest “Oh crap!” moment, if you have seen the film, you surely know what I am referring to. If not, I will let you find that out on your own.
But no twist that M. Night Shyamalan has delivered in his prolific career has ever, and may not ever, be as iconic his breakout hit.
1.The Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan had directed two films to not much avail before this Academy Award-nominated chiller.
The title of The Sixth Sense refers to young Cole Sear’s (Haley Joel Osment) ability to see the spirits of the unwitting dead. Cole seeks the help of Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist whose marriage has fallen apart since his violent encounter with a former patient (Donnie Wahlberg), to help him cope with his terrifying gift, believing that he is the only one who can help him. Yet, it is Cole who ends up helping Crowe the most, as he realizes in the film’s epic finale.
The violent encounter with Crowe’s former patient (a gunshot to his stomach) years earlier actually ended his life and Crowe had been a ghost through the whole movie. Finally understanding his wife’s inability to communicate with him and after successfully aiding Cole in taking ownership of his skills, Crowe chooses this moment to crossover into the proper afterlife - a bittersweet conclusion wrapped in unbelievable shock. Shyamalan earned comparisons to Steven Spielberg with this hit and justifiably so, considering the clever ways he hints at what would eventually become his trademark without spilling the beans, even if Are You Afraid of the Dark? did the same concept years earlier.
We’ll just ignore that.
What do you think of our ranking? Do you agree that The Sixth Sense is the ultimate movie fake out, or do you think I was a little too generous to M. Night Shyamalan? However you feel, let us know in the comments and be sure to check for more fun facts and updates here on CinemaBlend.
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.