M. Night of the Living Oeuvre–a look at the works of M. Night Shyamalan

June 18, 2008

In preparation for the upcoming The Happening, I figured the time was ripe for a look back at the collected works of M. Night Shyamalan. Plus it’s a nice, low-impact way to look busy in the office. No, but mostly it’s for The Happening.


Praying with Anger (1992)—This was a student film Shyamalan made. You really expect me to find, let alone review this? Sure. Why not? Hey, maybe I can review the monster movie he made when was eight years-old, too.


Wide Awake (1998)—No one saw this, so who gives a crap? Let’s just move ahead to…


The Sixth Sense (1999)—The movie that put Shyamalan on Hollywood’s radar, featuring both a catch-phrase and a twist ending that, unlike most of Hollywood’s attempts to be clever, actually puts events of the film in some perspective. Shyamalan actually lets his actors act (he’ll stop with that soon enough), and gets terrific performances out of his entire cast—from an understated, generous Bruce Willis to a preternaturally talented Haley Joel Osmet. But it’s Toni Collette who’s the standout in this talented cast. She gives the film its heart and makes a potential creepfest with a gimmicky twist into a good old-fashioned weepie…creepfest with a gimmicky twist. Critics reacted with indifference to The Sixth Sense, and ran mostly cold on Shyamalan. Then The Sixth Sense made a boatload of money and grabbed a couple of Oscar nominations, and they decided that Shyamalan was actually the second coming of Alfred Hitchcock. That wouldn’t last.


Unbreakable (2000)Shyamalan’s limitations as a screenwriter are nowhere more apparent than in this film which appears to be all wind-up and no pitch. After about 100 minutes of Bruce Willis wondering if he’s superhuman we find out that, yeah it looks that way. He stops a home-invader from killing a couple of kids (but not their parents—bummer) and then the movie ends. Oh yeah, and Samuel L. Jackson is actually a bad guy. The movie is so poorly-paced that it requires end notes to provide some closure. I’ve always suspected that Shyamalan was pressured for a fast follow-up to The Sixth Sense and so he cranked out a half-cooked idea and threw in a twist at the end (which you know audiences and movie execs were demanding). But along with the wafer-thin screenplay, the performances are all flat and colorless with Willis seemingly suffering from a concussion and Jackson channeling Clarence Williams III from 52 Pick-Up.


Signs (2002)—The tension between Shyamalan’s gifts as a director and his weaknesses as a writer duel for supremacy in this alien invasion/exploration of faith thriller. I found the movie to be largely effective due to Shyamalan’s slow-building tension and cathartic release. Unfortunately, it’s a shiny coat of paint on the AMC Gremlin of a story. The scares are effective, but they fade quickly when you start to wonder how it is that aliens intelligent enough to travel across the galaxy to invade us can’t figure out how to use a doorknob. And why it is that if H2O is acidic to them that they decide to invade a planet that’s mostly water? And don’t wear any, you know, waterproof stuff. All they’d have to do is loot an REI store and humanity’s toast. Shyamalan’s spiritual exploration is mostly hokum as well. Apparently everything happens for a reason—and that reason is to thwart an alien invasion. Oh.


The Village (2004)—Shyamalan goes back to the “big twist” well and canks up what might have otherwise been a decent little horror movie. Shyamalan the writer decides that the big ideas here are going to be how governments use fear to control their people and even go so far as manufacturing boogeymen to keep the hoi polloi in line. What might have been a (reasonably) trenchant political comment is undercut by the sympathy Shyamalan shows for the lying, manipulating leaders. He should have just left the story about an isolated village menaced by monsters. Bryce Dallas Howard turns in a luminous performance (Shyamalan not having drained her soul yet), but everyone else just sort of wanders around in a daze. Adrien Brody embarasses himself as the village idiot.




Lady in the Water (2006)—And it all goes to hell. The story sent Shyamalan’s long-time Disney collaborators running and screaming, but Warner Brothers ponied up the dough to put his vision on the screen. Bad idea. Shyamalan claims the story started as a bedtime story for his daughter. I’m pretty sure she’d prefer Goodnight Moon. Paul Giamatti finds the drain of his apartment complex’s swimming pool is clogged with a hot, naked Bryce Dallas Howard who is actually a sea-nymph or narf (I’m not making this up). She’s on the run from nasty creatures called scrunts, which look like someone cross-bred hyenas with a bale of sod (not making this up), while trying to avoid the tartutic monkey-henchmen (seriously, not making this up) so she can catch a flight on the gigantic eagle. Giamatti learns from a neighbor that these are creatures from Korean legend (narf and scrunt don’t sound terribly Korean to me, but what do I know?) and have a role to play in some grand drama. Oh, and everyone in the apartment has some greater destiny, but none greater than the writer played by Shyamalan himself who saves the world. Good that Shyamalan has a healthy self-esteem. I‘m sure it came in handy after the public evisceration he got from the critics and movie-viewing public upon this film’s release.


So that’s M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre in nutshell. Will The Happening be a triumphant return to form? Or will it crash and burn scattering charred narfs and scrunts everywhere? Tune in soon for the answer! (Of course you could also just see the movie yourself, but why pony up the 10 bucks when I’m willing to be your canary in the coal mine?)


  1. Yo, what’s with the trend of making up ridiculous stuff and then blaming it on my people’s folklore?

  2. I dunno. I was going to ask you to account for all the narfs and scrunts and stuff, but I couldn’t think of a polite way to ask ‘why are your culture’s legends so retarded?’

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