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It has a been a little while since M. Night Shyamalan - the writer, producer, director, and sometimes actor who first started scaring us with his acclaimed breakout hit The Sixth Sense - has given us much to scream about… on the big screen, that is. In recent years, the main focus for the executive producer of Apple TV+’s Servant was reinventing superhero movies with a pair of sequels to Unbreakable, but he appears to be officially retuning to horror movies with an intriguing thriller called Old, which follows beachgoers mysteriously cursed with a dangerously rapid mortality rate. Of course, not all of the following M. Night Shyamalan movies, which you can watch now on streaming or by renting online, are meant to be scary (intentionally or not), such as his first major studio production.
Wide Awake (Amazon Rental)
M. Night Shyamalan’s filmmaking career began in ways that might surprise those who know him best for his thrillers, having made his true debut as a writer and director with the self-produced 1992 dramedy Praying with Anger before transitioning into the studio system with this lighthearted coming-of-age story. Filmed in 1995 but released three years later, Wide Awake stars Joseph Cross (later known for dramas like Milk or Netflix’s Mank) as a fifth grader inspired to gain a better understanding of his Christian faith after the death of his grandfather. Also starring Denis Leary and Rosie O’Donnell, this family film is a funny and emotionally grasping exploration of spirituality.
The Sixth Sense (Amazon Rental)
Having a much more difficult time adjusting to his “spiritual awakening” is Cole Sear, the role that earned a then-11-year-old Haley Joel Osment an Academy Award nomination - one of six that this clever thriller was recognized for, including Best Supporting Actress for Heredity star Toni Collette and Best Picture. Also giving a strong performance is Bruce Willis as a child psychologist struggling with a few personal issues of his own (more than he even realizes) as he tries to help Cole come to terms with his ability to “see dead people.” Still widely recognized as one of the best horror movies of the last several decades, The Sixth Sense left critics spooked, moved, and shocked by its iconic twist ending that immediately put writer and director M. Night Shyamalan on the map.
Unbreakable (Amazon Prime)
M. Night Shyamalan reunited with Bruce Willis a year after The Sixth Sense for a different kind of thriller that aimed to put a new spin on the superhero movie genre long before it reached its prime. The Die Hard actor plays a family man and security guard who catches the attention of a disabled comic book aficionado (Samuel L. Jackson) after he becomes the sole, uninjured survivor of a devastating train accident. Witness the origin of a reluctant super-powered vigilante in Unbreakable, which may not have had the spookiness audiences expected from Shyamalan circa 2000, but (arguably) has one of his better twists.
Signs (Amazon Prime)
M. Night Shyalaman’s follow-up to Unbreakable has also been subject to debate in regards to its twist(s), but, as far as I am concerned, the scares this sci-fi thriller delivers are undeniable. In Signs, Academy Award winner Mel Gibson plays a widowed former preacher who discovers a crop circle has formed outside of his home, which has his son (Rory Culkin), daughter (Abigail Breslin), and eventually, his younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix) convinced that an otherworldly enemy is among them. In addition to being one of the better alien invasion movies in recent memory, I also admire the 2002 hit as a family drama and yet another exploration of faith - one of the more intriguing and prevalent themes of Shyamalan’s career that often goes overlooked.
The Village (Amazon Rental)
M. Night Shyamalan reunited with Joaquin Phoenix two years after Signs for a film that is far more controversial than said title for its scares and its twists, both of which I would argue are actually pretty good. Without giving too much away, The Village follows a group of people who have sworn not to step foot outside their isolated, 19th-Century settlement to appease the monstrous creatures that live in the surrounding woods. Also starring Bryce Dallas Howard in her breakout role of a blind woman who disobeys the villagers’ rules out of love, this divisive film is an engrossing supernatural take on the period drama and The Village ending, if you ask me, deserves a lot more love.
Lady In The Water (Cinemax)
M. Night Shyamalan reunited with Bryce Dallas Howard two years after The Village for a film that I think barely qualifies as controversial, but still has a bit of an infamous reputation from its mixed reception and lackluster box office returns. The actress and future filmmaker plays a woman who seeks the protection of an anxious apartment complex superintendent (Paul Giamatti) from vicious beasts preventing her from returning to the fantasy realm she comes from. Initially assumed to be a simple, modern day bedtime story, Lady in the Water is revealed to be a more personal film for Shyamalan than expected in its midway twist, but the real reason I recommend it is its bizarre and beautifully perplexing bursts of unintentional comedy.
The Happening (Amazon Rental)
Whether or not the comedy is intentional in this even more infamous 2008 “thriller,” the laughs it inspires are what makes it worth watching. Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg leads the cast as a high school science teacher who tries to protect his wife (Zooey Deschanel), his friend’s daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez), and others from a strange, unexplainable phenomenon that has proven deadly in the places it has affected. Admittedly, the actual result of the disaster at the center of The Happening is the opposite of funny in concept, but the cause of it and the characters’ reactions to it are so ridiculous that you will easily be able to forgive yourself for laughing.
The Last Airbender (Netflix)
Forgiveness is not something that has come so easily for M. Night Shyamalan after writing and directing this live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was forced to shorten its title after James Cameron’s Avatar came out the previous year. Taking place in a world divided into four kingdoms (each represented by a different element its people magically manipulate), The Last Airbender follows Aang’s (Noah Ringer) journey to unify the kingdoms by mastering all four elements and fulfilling his destiny. Fans were disappointed by this “winner” of the 2011 Worst Picture Razzie for changes from the original animated series deemed unnecessary and critics average moviegoers found the script weak and acting wooden, but at least it will cost you nothing to watch again if you subscribe to Netflix.
After Earth (Starz)
A streaming subscription to Starz will also allow you to watch or revisit this bizarre sci-fi adventure that M. Night Shyamalan co-wrote and directed as a vehicle for Will Smith and Jaden Smith at no extra cost. The real-life father/son duo play a father and son who struggle to survive after crash landing on a dangerous, uninhabitable planet once known as Earth. With critics and audiences agreeing that the uninspired acting and unnatural dialogue (to put it delicately) made this one worth skipping in 2013, After Earth could have been a career-killing misfire for Shyamalan if not for the moment he finally returned to its roots.
The Visit (Amazon Rental)
More accurately, 2015 not only saw M. Night Shyamalan return to the horror, but saw him try his hand at one of its most popular subgenres with a little help from hit-maker Jason Blum. We see everything from the perspective of teenage Becca (Olivia DeJonge), who is making a documentary about her and her younger brother’s (Ed Oxenbould) first meeting with their grandparents, which turns into a record of their fight for survival when it appears that there is something very wrong with “Nana” and “Pop Pop.” Also starring future WandaVision cast member Kathryn Hahn, I was not sure what to make of The Visit when I first saw it, but soon came to accept it as a cool found footage horror entry and one of Shyamalan’s best in years.
Split (Amazon Rental)
If The Visit was not the film that effectively bailed M. Night Shyamalan out of movie jail, then it would have to be his second film under the Blumhouse umbrella. The Witch star Anya Taylor-Joy became a certified Scream Queen for her role as one of three young women kidnapped by a stranger who turns out not to be one person, but several personalities living within one man. Scottish actor James McAvoy gives a breathtaking performance as the DID-stricken antagonist(s) of Split, which shocked audiences with a conclusion that proved to be one of the coolest twists of Shyamalan’s career.
Glass (Amazon Rental)
Said twist, which you might be aware of by now even if you have not seen the Split ending, was that it was really a sequel to Unbreakable, as revealed in a post-credits scene with Bruce Willis as David Dunn that served as an exciting lead-in to M. Night Shyamalan’s next film. Dunn, James McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price all find themselves in a mental institution where a psychologist (Sarah Paulson) tries to “cure” them of their delusion that they are real-life comic book characters. Despite being yet another polarizing moment in Shyalaman’s career for a confusing plot contrivances, I find Glass to be an entertaining and fitting conclusion to the director’s superhero movie trilogy and a sign that we confidently say he has returned to form.
Say what you want about M. Night Shyamalan, but the guy is not without his strengths, if you ask me. Will Old measure up to some of his better films? We'll find out soon, as Old arrives in theaters on July 23, 2021.