It has been an uphill struggle, but M. Night Shyamalan has reacquainted with success.
It seems almost a lifetime ago that Indian-born filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan was being heralded as the next Steven Spielberg. After a couple of minor efforts, the director managed to captivate Hollywood with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, which is often regarded as a modern horror classic. It was a refreshing, compelling piece of work, and audiences knew immediately that this individual had something special; there was a real sense of mystery. Who was M. Night Shyamalan?
This was a question he was happy to address, and that’s what he did with 2000’s Unbreakable. He was a game-changer, someone able to think outside of the box - a storyteller. He further confirmed this with his fifth feature, Signs, which arguably remains the crown jewel of the director’s body of work. It was genuinely quite terrifying but possessed great warmth, and as mentioned, at the heart of the film is a terrific story. Expectations were now in place, and they would remain; eventually, they began to haunt him.
With the release of The Village in 2004, everyone was asking: “What’s the twist?” That had become the director’s unique selling point, and his films were marketed as mysteries accordingly. The promise of surprise made the forthcoming film a must-see event, and sadly, the reveal left many disappointed. It’s actually a well-crafted, effective horror film, and yet majority viewers left only with the ending in mind. The decline began here, and his four subsequent efforts - Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth - provided a nail for each corner of his career’s casket.
His comeback film made outside of the studio, The Visit, pleased some, but it wasn’t the fond return that Shyamalan anticipated it to be. However, Split was - it was critically acclaimed, it was a box-office success, and it set him up for Glass. It’s arguable that Split’s ties to Unbreakable were out of desperation. The film was average at best, but once David Dunn was revealed, all of a sudden people’s perceptions of the entire film were overwhelmingly positive. A coincidence, or did Shyamalan cleverly comment on modern audiences? “Sequels, reboots, tie-ins, why is it so easy for them?” he may have thought. “I know, let me try…”
He showed the world who he was with Unbreakable, and with Glass, maybe he was trying to communicate to audiences that deep down he was the same filmmaker we admired two decades ago. Audiences responded well to it, but critics weren’t entirely convinced. The superhero film reigns supreme today, and perhaps Shyamalan works better with smaller projects. The truth is this, Shyamalan works well with good stories - he doesn’t need a budget for his next success; a storyteller needs a good story. But, can we expect him to have one?
Some would dub him desperate and frantic for returning to old characters to clutch at success. Others would call him nostalgic, as perhaps he missed the characters of Unbreakable as old friends, appreciative of what they brought him. It’s definitely possible that he could feel the same way in the near future, and if he does, we’d imagine him considering a Signs sequel. Although it may be better left untouched, a sequel could have potential; the characters are great, the first was genuinely frightening… all he needs is that story. The first one kept the alien-invasion narrative controlled, and that’s what made it so effective. He could definitely do something similar again.
As for original films, The Visit didn’t really work. He fused horror and comedy together in such a way as to immobilise the potency of both, and a sequel is definitely off the table. Disregarding sequels, it wouldn’t surprise us if Shyamalan decided to tackle socially-conscious horror, perhaps within the home-invasion sub-genre, of which he proved himself capable of orchestrating with Signs. There are so many possibilities and avenues that he could explore, but the horror genre is definitely where the filmmaker operates best. What his next film needs is a simple, striking premise enriched by universal themes, a strong, small cast, and a great twist.
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