M. Night Shyamalan Is Actually Underrated and Here's Why

M. Night Shyamalan
Anita Bugge/WireImage
Anita Bugge/WireImage

Note: This article contains spoilers for old M. Night Shyamalan films, but it doesn't reveal any major plot details for Split, now in theaters. Proceed accordingly.

Split, the 12th feature film by director M. Night Shyamalan, has arrived in theaters with modest fanfare. In the years following the immense success of 1999's The Sixth Sense, a new Shyamalan movie was a seismic cultural event, complete with star-studded premieres and gushing magazine cover stories, like the 2002 issue of Newsweek famously touting the director, then 31 and promoting the sci-fi thriller Signs, as "The Next Spielberg." But by 2010, after a string of critical disappointments, the words "From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan" were prompting gleeful derision and South Park punch lines.

So how did the man whose career was built on twists pull off his biggest yet -- a comeback? Especially so soon after the critically lambasted Will and Jaden Smith stinker After Earth? The resurgence began with the former Hollywood wunderkind's The Visit, a well-reviewed and financially successful 2015 found-footage horror movie, and it spikes with Split, a similarly low-budget captivity thriller built around a bonkers James McAvoy performance. The M. Night Shyamalassaince is in full swing.

Time will tell whether the knee-jerk "He sucks!" cries subside -- but maybe that mockery was always unfair. Maybe Shyamalan is actually... ["They called me Mr. Glass" voice] pretty great? To test this theory, let's take a walk through the shadow-strewn Philadelphia streets of the 46-year-old's filmography and see which of his movies are overrated, underrated, or correctly rated. Dead people are welcome.

(Some quick ground rules: I'm skipping Shyamalan's first two non-creepy features -- the 1992 indie Praying with Anger and 1998's Rosie O'Donnell kids movie Wide Awake -- as well as Devil, that dumb-looking 2010 elevator movie he produced but didn't direct. I'm also leaving out the Wayward Pines pilot episode. Movies only.)

The Sixth Sense, m knight shyamalan
Buena Vista Pictures

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Box office: $293,506,292
Rotten Tomatoes score: 85%
What's the twist? Bruce Willis is a ghost.
This is where it all began. After a frustrating experience working with Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein on 1998's Wide Awake, the then-28-year-old screenwriter penned a script that was gripping enough to sell to Disney for $3 million. In a pre-social media era, the movie was an enormous word-of-mouth hit, spending five weekends as the No. 1 movie at the box office and eventually earning six Oscar nominations, including two for Shyamalan himself (for writing and directing). It was a genuine phenomenon.

But does it hold up? Mostly -- though it probably won't melt your mind again. The movie has the rare twist ending that was genuinely surprising at the time but also deepens on multiple viewings as you reinterpret the actions of Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a therapist helping Haley Joel Osment's ghost-seeing little boy make sense of his unsettling gift. Plus, it's got Mischa Barton puking in a tent. Who doesn't want to watch that?

Underrated or overrated: Overrated.

Unbreakable Bruce Willis
Buena Vista Pictures

Unbreakable (2000)

Box office: $95,011,339
Rotten Tomatoes score: 68%
What's the twist? Samuel L. Jackson is a supervillain.
If The Sixth Sense was the breakout mega-hit album that made Shyamalan's career, than Unbreakable is the "difficult" second album that "real" fans insist is actually way better. (In Weezer terms, The Sixth Sense is The Blue Album and Unbreakable is Pinkerton.) It's the movie you get to make when you have some juice, and at the time, Shyamalan was in the perfect position to film a morose superhero origin story about a security guard (Willis, again) who befriends a wheelchair-bound comic-book fan (Samuel L. Jackson) following a deadly train crash. While the material is very Stephen King, the execution is slow and quiet; it's more arthouse than grindhouse.

Though the movie got decent reviews on its release, it's now heralded as a classic superhero movie, the thoughtful antithesis to Marvel and DC's increasingly hollow spectacles. I'm tempted to call this one "overrated" because of how pedantically some fans argue for its masterpiece status -- it's one of those movies where even the mildest criticism is often met with "BRO DID YOU EVEN GET IT?" accusations -- but it's really, really good. Willis and Jackson give top-tier performances, James Newton Howard's mercurial score is haunting, and the movie's Alan Moore-lite critique of the genre is even more poignant in our current franchise-obsessed era. This is peak Shyamalan.

Underrated or overrated: Underrated.

Signs Joaquin Phoenix
Buena Vista Pictures

Signs (2002)

Box office: $227,966,634
Rotten Tomatoes score: 74%
What's the twist? Aliens hate water.
This is not peak Shyamalan. While the movie made big money and earned some killer reviews -- in a four-star rave, Roger Ebert compared it to Hitchcock -- Signs is where the director's unquestionable ability to craft inventive, terrifying visuals felt like it was in direct opposition with his limitations as a writer. Mel Gibson is fine as an ex-priest who lives with his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) and his cute kids (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) on a farm in Pennsylvania that might be getting visited by some crop-hating UFOs. The film has a couple dynamite sequences -- the baby monitor scene is especially effective -- but it also contains all the flaws that would later plague Shyamalan's lesser films: painfully slow pacing, silly-looking special effects, and a big whiff of a twist ending. ("Swing away Merrill" is no "I see dead people.") It's easy to see why some saw this and were like, "Shyamalan, you're no Steven Spielberg." Watch Close Encounters instead.

Underrated or overrated: Overrated.

The Village Bryce Dallas Howard
Buena Vista Pictures

The Village (2004)

Box office: $114,197,520
Rotten Tomatoes score: 43%
What's the twist? Old-timey world isn't as old-timey as it looks.
Following the release of a ridiculous faux-documentary on the Syfy channel called The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, the much-mythologized filmmaker was due for a fall, and while the movie fared well commercially, I remember The Village as ground zero of the backlash. It's not hard to see why: no big movie stars, period costumes, delicate pacing, occasionally Yoda-like dialogue, and a twist most viewers can "call" 15 minutes in. It's got more in common with Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon or Lars von Trier's Dogville than most modern horror films. For many moviegoers, it probably scans as pretentious.

But there's a (possibly pretentious) case to be made for The Village. In telling the story of a blind woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) who must venture outside her secluded Amish-like community against the wishes of her father (William Hurt) to secure medicine for her dying boyfriend (Joaquin Phoenix), Shyamalan creates some of his most visually striking work. The director is known for storyboarding his films, and here, when teamed with frequent Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins, he finds imagery worthy of 19th-century American wilderness painters: fog floating through fields, a blade pulled from a stomach, or a bright-yellow cloak caked in mud. While the big "twist" is predictable, it also allows for the film to be read in a range of compelling ways: as a parable about white flight, a protest of the Iraq War, or a twisted portrait of parental control gone awry. I hated it when I first saw it, but now I think it might be his most unfairly overlooked film.

Underrated or overrated: Underrated.

Lady in the Water Paul Giamatti
Warner Bros.

Lady in the Water (2006)

Box office: $42,285,169
Rotten Tomatoes score: 24%
What's the twist? It sucks.
Instead of breaking down the many reasons why Lady in the Water was a bizarre creative misstep, let's use this space to celebrate the best thing to come out of this Paul Giamatti movie: a book called The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, by frequent Sports Illustrated contributor Michael Bamberger. If you like reading gushingly written books about the making of disastrous movies, I can't recommend this highly enough.

If you read the book, you will learn about Shyamalan's skills as a basketball player. (Real quote: "When Night played basketball on Tuesday nights, it wouldn't be uncommon to see him shoot five three-pointers in a row.) You will discover that the movie's acclaimed cinematographer, Chris Doyle (In the Mood for Love), often showed up intoxicated and exposed himself on set. (Real quote: "In the back of the screening room, Doyle had dropped his pants again, this time for an audience double in size.") You will learn Shyamalan is nearly God-like. (Real quote: "Night knew there was something telepathic going on between him and Michael Jordan, him and Bob Dylan, him and Walt Disney.") Every page contains a shiny, underwater treasure. I beg you: Read this book. It's way more interesting than Lady in the Water.

Underrated or overrated: Correctly rated.

The Happening Mark Whalberg
20th Century Fox

The Happening (2008)

Box office: $64,506,874
Rotten Tomatoes score: 18%
What's the twist? The trees did it… I think.
Man, The Happening: What the fuck? It's not unreasonable to assume that Shyamalan, a highly sensitive guy, took the critical and commercial beating of Lady in the Water a little personally. When the movie you envision as your E.T. ends up being your Howard the Duck, you'd probably be shaken up too. This eco-thriller feels like a self-conscious peeling back of the ambition of his previous two movies; in interviews before its release, he emphasized it was "the best B-movie ever" and the violent R-rated kill scenes suggested Shyamalan was embracing his inner schlockmeister.

It's an awkward fit mostly because Mark Wahlberg -- playing a sweater-vest-wearing, mood-ring-sporting science teacher -- can't find the weary tone of most broken Shyamalan protagonists. He's all jittery eyebrows, high voice, and hilarious plant monologues. Zooey Deschanel doesn't fare much better as his wife, a character who recoils from her phone when it vibrates like it might murder her. Granted, in this movie, your phone might kill you -- everything is a threat when there's a Happening going on! For Shyamalan obsessives, this a fascinating study in intentionality: Was it supposed to be serious or campy? For everyone else, watching this movie is, as Wahlberg says to a little girl swinging on a rickety tree at one point, "maybe not a good idea??!!??"

Underrated or overrated: Underrated (as comedy); overrated (as secret masterpiece).

The Last Airbender
Paramount Pictures

The Last Airbender (2010)

Box office: $131,772,187
Rotten Tomatoes score: 6%
What's the twist? Is whitewashing a twist?
Shyamalan was clearly aiming to jump into the big-budget blockbuster terrain of Peter Jackson, James Cameron, and George Lucas with this adaptation of the beloved animated series about kids who can manipulate (or "bend") the elements, but he struggles to make the effects-heavy plot come to life. Happy-go-lucky star Noah Ringer (Cowboys and Aliens) doesn't lend the exposition-filled story any kiddie-movie gravitas, and the adults on hand -- Dev Patel, Aasif Mandvi, and Shaun Toub -- look excited to get back to their trailers. Dinged for a questionable 3D conversion on release, the movie looks equally drab on your laptop now. Don't hold your breath for a sequel.

Underrated or overrated: Correctly rated.

After Earth Jaden Smith
Columbia Pictures

After Earth (2013)

Box office: $60,522,097
Rotten Tomatoes score: 11%
What's the twist? It's all about Scientology.
Here's the most important thing you need to know about After Earth: Will Smith's character in this sci-fi epic is named Cypher Raige. It sounds like the name of villain in a pinball game. Besides that, this "take your child to work day" sci-fi action movie about military commander Cypher Raige learning to trust his son (Smith's IRL spawn Jaden) is actually more entertaining than its dire reputation would suggest. Working from a story by Smith, Shyamalan is in gun-for-hire mode even though he shares a co-writing credit with writer Gary Whitta (Rogue One) on a script that was reportedly punched up by not one but two Academy Award-winning screenwriters (Traffic's Stephen Gaghan and The Hurt Locker's Mark Boal). All that rewriting makes for a taut, occasionally ponderous survival story set on an abandoned Earth filled with gray pulp-paperback imagery via Empire Strikes Back cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Is it great? No. Is it decent Saturday afternoon cable viewing? Yes. Does it have a character named Cypher Raige? I rest my case.

Underrated or overrated: Underrated.

The Visit M. Night Shyamalan
Universal Pictures

The Visit (2015)

Box office: $65,206,105
Rotten Tomatoes score: 64%
What's the twist? The grandparents are bad. 
The official "comeback" narrative starts here. Given Shyamalan's tightly choreographed shooting style, the found-footage format doesn't seem like the best use for his talents. And yet: The Visit, a tale of two kids meeting their grandparents for the first time, pulls you in with its simplicity, emotionally raw performances, and occasionally funny moments of meta-humor. (Olivia DeJonge is charming as the aspiring filmmaker, but I refuse to acknowledge the dumb rapping kid.) In the same way The Happening found scares in flip phones and Signs made baby monitors spooky, this movie's big reveal happens during a Skype conversation, which is either super-weird or totally perfect depending on how many personal revelations you've had while video chatting.

Underrated or overrated: Correctly rated.

Split James McAvoy

Split (2017)

Box office: Not released yet
Rotten Tomatoes score: 79%
What's the twist? We're not telling!
The transformation is complete. Now that he's got his horror-movie groove back after The Visit, the confident filmmaker is in full command of his gifts in this steely thriller that's part Silence of the Lambs riff, part Brian De Palma tribute, and all Shyamalan. Playing a violent man suffering from dissociative identity disorder, X-Men's James McAvoy gives the least restrained performance in a Shyamalan film ever, playing each of his character's 23 personalities with actorly glee. After kidnapping a trio of teenage girls -- including The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy -- he locks them in his underground lair and basically goes to war with them... and himself.

Does it all work? Of course not: There are some awkward flashbacks, overwritten lines, and tone-deaf attempts at humor. It's trashy, tasteless, and, if you're on the movie's disturbed wavelength, occasionally profound. Most of all, it's an earnest (and sometimes self-indulgent) love letter to people who can't get enough of M. Night Shyamalan, one of our most underrated directors.

Underrated or overrated: Underrated.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment and if this article was an M. Night Shyamalan movie the twist would go right here. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.