People are willing to accept a few missteps from many famous directors. Fans even seem to forget that Steven Spielberg directed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Any creative director will have at least one flop in their repertoire; it’s an inevitable part of the career. It’s debatable that M. Night Shyamalan has had more than one film disappoint its viewers, but why were we so hard on him? Why did the horror community so readily toss him into “director’s jail” and throw away the key?
The Rise and Fall of M. Night Shyamalan
After the release of his breakout film, The Sixth Sense (1999), M. Night Shyamalan was an overnight success and was praised for the twist ending which no one saw coming (stop telling people at parties that you predicted the ending; we all know you’re lying, Brad). The weight of being called the “next Spielberg” by multiple media outlets was immediately placed on M. Night’s shoulders. His next two movies, Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002) were able to keep pace by using aspects from both the horror and thriller genres and maintaining the exciting twist-ending. M. Night Shyamalan went on to be nominated for the Bram Stoker award for all three films, winning for The Sixth Sense. The Sixth Sense was also nominated for two academy awards.
Fast forward a couple of years, and M. Night’s career hits a major lull. After The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006), and The Happening (2008), M. Night’s legacy had dwindled into that of a has-been, an enigma of Hollywood. Due to panned reviews and harsh criticism, M. Night struggled to find his footing. Trying to move away from his now predictable twist-endings, M. Night ventured farther into fantasy and science fiction films, with The Last Airbender (2010), and After Earth (2013). Critical reviews continued to run along the same wire, throwing crushing blows at Shyamalan’s career.
Did Our Expectations Become Unattainable?
I’ll be frank; some of these films were certainly below par, and below the expectations that were held for M. Night. His “twist” subversion started to become an eye roll for some, often comparable to a Stephen King novel ending. Is it possible that our expectations destroyed the watching process? Maybe. Or maybe, our “helicopter parent” reaction to trying to figure out the twist, instead of letting it unravel organically as we watch, ruined the writing experience for M. Night. Regardless, either possibility drove Shyamalan farther away from the horror-thriller classification, and into a strange fantasy realm where his movies simply did not click. In a twist that many did see coming, M. Night found himself struggling to find work and investments from producers.
The Renaissance of M. Night Shyamalan’s Career
After many Hollywood studios passed on his work, Shyamalan took out a loan against his estate to self-fund the found-footage film, The Visit (2015). A commercial success, The Visit ended up making about $98 million in return, as opposed to his original 5 million dollar loan. M. Night continued along this trajectory in his next film, Split (2017), spending about $9 million, and seeing a $280 million dollar return. Both movies included excellent, unpredictable twists. Split’s plot twist was in fact so successful, it spawned another film from the stand-alone turn-trilogy. Although the final installment, Glass (2019), was not as critically acclaimed as Split, it still remains a financial success.
During the “renaissance” of Shyamalan’s filmmaking, I find myself reflecting on his career as a whole. So what if he’s had a few bad movies, and so what if he likes a twist-ending? This man is writing, producing, and directing essentially all of his films. Most people can’t even do one of those. What’s incomprehensible to me, is that we were actively trying to throw M. Night to the wolves for a few panned passion-pieces, but still let people like Rob Zombie get away with making 3 From Hell. Actually, we’ve been letting Rob Zombie make Texas Chainsaw Massacre rip-off after rip-off without making a peep about his career.
Are We too Harsh on M. Night?
Every tenured, successful director has their trademarks and idiosyncrasies. Steven Spielberg likes stories about fractured families and scores written by John Williams, John Carpenter loves widescreen shots and tension, Ari Aster likes to make you want to crawl out of your skin, and Rob Zombie loves to put his wife in every film regardless of her acting abilities. Narrowing any director down to their individual preferences takes away from their success as a whole.
Passionate movie fans should be focusing on the positive effects that M. Night has had on the cinema community. He’s a director of color, something that is seemingly often forgotten. He also shoots almost all of his films in his [and my] hometown of Philadelphia, raising local tourism and revenue. Even more than that, M. Night has been very vocal about removing the filming tax cap in Pennsylvania, to attract other filmmakers to the state. Most movies (besides his) that are based in Philadelphia are shot in Toronto, Canada because it is so expensive to film in Pennsylvania. Need I remind you that he has also funded many of his huge projects on his own, without initial help from major production companies. He puts more work into each individual project than some directors have put into their entire career.
More than a Horror Film
In that same vein, M. Night Shyamalan is a director that always puts so much passion into his films, which is rare to find in any genre, but most certainly in thrillers or horror. M. Night’s films, while terrifying, also often include dramatic themes and tones. Faith, religion, destiny, water…are all themes that ebb and flow through his movies. I am still trying to figure out the water theme, though. I love Signs; it was one of the first films to truly scare me at a young age. I knew people that couldn’t even finish the film because of how realistic it started to feel. That being said, please don’t ask me why the H2O-allergic aliens attempted to invade a planet that is almost completely made of water. I simply don’t have all of the answers.
I do think I have the answer to what went wrong in The Happening (2008). The tones of Shyamalan’s films tend to reflect their characters, so I hereby blame Mark Wahlberg’s acting. The concept is intriguing and topical and could have been terrifying, especially in a world where a climate change crisis exists. Mark Wahlberg nearly single-handedly ruined that film. If a movie isn’t about corrupt police in Boston, Mark Wahlberg should not be in it.
When it comes to The Village (2004), that movie is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. The pacing was slow, but the acting was great, and there were enough twists to keep audiences guessing. I will die on that hill.
Shyamalan Should Continue to Write His Own Films
The bottom line is that these movies are often not just campfire ghost stories. In a world of remakes and rip-offs, M. Night attempts to show the audience something that they haven’t seen before, which should be treasured. Even more so, Shyamalan has been quoted as having the rights to the sequels of his films, just to ensure that no one else can make them, keeping the integrity of the original films.
Variety Magazine argues that Shyamalan should stop writing his own films. I argue that he should only direct films that are of his own creation. His talent pours onto paper when it seems that he is comfortable and confident in his work. And yes, he did write the screenplay for After Earth, but it was not his original thought piece. Not every movie will be perfect. It takes time to find your niche…even if that means circling back to what originally brought you success. With his new movie, “Old” set to be released in July of 2021, I am incredibly curious to see which direction M. Night chooses to go in. Until then, leave M. Night Shyamalan alone!