M. Night Shyamalan is probably the most controversial director in all of horror. Just about anyone who has seen more than a couple of his movies either loves or hates him. There isn’t much room in the middle. And the director isn’t without his share of controversies (whether you like his movies or not). But let’s take a look at the best and worst of Shyamalan’s 10 horror films to date.
We’ll start with the mistakes.
The Bottom 5 Shyamalan: Starting with the Worst of the Worst
10. The Happening (2008)
What? What in the hell was that? Why? Go read Mark Wahlberg’s quotes about it. He was the star of the show, and even he hated it. Quite literally, nothing worked. Not a single scene. The characters were stupid, the plot was too farcical to even be a silly B-rate horror, and they had the best opportunity in all of film to use Drowning Pool’s classic Bodies for a theme song and didn’t take it. The Happening was more of a train wreck than the actual train wreck in Unbreakable. And I paid money to see it in theaters! I took a girl there on a date! I left that theater knowing I had gotten significantly dumber for having seen the movie. Ouch.
9. The Village (2004)
Oof. This one felt like Shyamalan trying to present progressive political views without ever hiring a writer versed in politics. The whole thing was a mess. The plot is boring and plain, the characters are so predictable that they surpass the realm of trope and enter idiocy, and the twist was just a joke. Honestly, there aren’t any real bright spots to bring it out of the basement.
8. Lady in the Water (2006)
A lot of wasted potential here. Good acting, cool plot, one of my favorite actresses playing the titular Lady—and then really, really bad execution. What started as a sci-fi mystery bordering on a thriller devolved into a nonsensical romance tossed into a goofy fairy tale plot. The only real saving grace to the whole film was the soundtrack. As for the Shyamalan twist? I can’t even remember what it was.
7. Split (2016)
This movie had so much potential. An all-star cast of actors, a great trilogy, and a very, very cool plot concept. For the first ~100 or so minutes, I loved it. Kevin’s descent into madness/villain origin story was awesome. The creepy factor was right up there with Signs and The Sixth Sense, and there wasn’t too much suspension of disbelief required by viewers with any kind of knowledge of psychology. From a medical standpoint, the movie was pure comedy, but as part of the Unbreakable universe, it made perfect sense.
So why is it on the bad list? The ending. Kevin turned into a supernatural/otherworldly immortal monster, and that’s not what Shyamalan thrillers are about. It doesn’t work. The plot is so creepy and scary because it is realistic, but then when the bad guy (or entity) turns out to be a completely impossible monster, it ruins it. It turns out that the big Shyamalan twist in Split is that the movie was actually bad!
6. Old (2021)
This one straddles the line between good and bad. The plot is very straightforward and a bit too predictable to make it a good horror, but the concept that Shyamalan explores is still excellent. Old poses an interesting thought experiment that I found instantly captivating. How would you escape a beach that rapidly ages you? At times I thought the movie was great simply because the concept and the acting were so good, but in the end, it was just too predictable. The twist could even be seen coming from the first thirty minutes.
The Top 5 M. Night Shyalmalan movies: Ending with the Absolute Best
5. Glass (2019)
Sarah Paulson is one of my favorite actresses, and she absolutely kills it in Glass. Overall, I’m not the biggest fan of the whole trilogy simply because Split was so disappointing, but Glass brought it together in a way that I really enjoyed. We finally got some closure on the series’ more esoteric plot points, and the psychological exploration of all three main characters was extremely immersive.
4. Unbreakable (2000)
Is it truly horror? Is it thriller? Drama? Kind of just a combination of all three. And a fantastic combination at that. The plot is what really brings it to life. I’ve never quite been able to find anything else out there like it. But uniqueness is part of what makes Shyamalan such a great director and writer. From the very beginning, Unbreakable takes a really cool spin on a superhero-esque plot, throwing the concept of superheroes into the real world much like Signs does with aliens. If you haven’t found the time to watch it in the last 21 years, go do it today.
3. The Visit (2015)
Putting this one ahead of Unbreakable is a touch choice. But the twist! The twist. I consider it the best twist in any Shyamalan movie. The overall plot is actually kind of weak, and the scares really aren’t there until the very end, but man… when you learn that the grandparents simply aren’t the grandparents, it takes the movie from a slow, almost boring drama to an insane thriller. For the epic twist alone, I rank it 3rd.
2. The Sixth Sense (1999)
You knew The Sixth Sense would make the top three. After all, it started Shyamalan’s career. Everyone knows the twist; it was the twist that started it all, that became the director’s trademark in all movies. Beyond the engaging writing, Bruce Willis was excellent (which is rare for such a typically one-dimensional action star), and the visual effects were stellar. Even for the 90s, the dead people are fantastic. And despite it being spoiled in the official trailer, the best scene of the movie still gives me chills. When Cole tells his mom that he sees a lady with a broken neck standing next to his window, it sets the creepy, subtle tone for Shyamalan’s entire filmography.
1. Signs (2002)
This one might not be what you expect for Shyamalan’s all-time best, but it is. And the reason is fairly clear. Unlike The Sixth Sense—what I expect most people would rank highest—Signs delivers believability. Sure, the main plot surrounds aliens, but nothing about the aliens is supernatural. Signs maintains your complete immersion by remaining within the realm of what could possibly be true.
That heavy dose of reality covering every scene of Signs brings it to life in a way that slashers or supernatural horror movies just can’t capture. When I watch Halloween Kills, for instance, I know that Michael Myers doesn’t actually make sense. The people of Haddonfield, IL would have abandoned the entire town by the third movie. And surely at some point the entire military would be after Michael. But a small town preacher visited by aliens? That plot works. It could happen in real life just how it is portrayed on the screen, and that brings Signs to life in a beautiful way.
There you have it. Shyamalan has made 10 horror movies, and we have five winners alongside five losers. But number 11 comes out in 2023. We only have the trailer right now, and it honestly doesn’t tell us much. So far, though, it seems like it’ll be a creepy horror-thriller centered around home invasion in the vein of The Strangers or The Last House on the Left. I know I’ll go watch it when the time comes, and I just hope that no movie Shyamalan ever makes will be worse than The Happening.
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