With Knock at the Cabin currently in theaters, it seemed like the perfect time to re-examine M. Night Shyamalan’s especially interesting directing filmography. It’s no secret that the director has made a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most eccentric storytellers — sometimes you’ll get a perfectly serviceable or even good horror movie, and other times you’ll get the most bizarre, off-the-wall ideas for a feature film.
Still, being such a recognizable name as a director is certainly an impressive feat, especially when that reputation is all about being one-of-a-kind. Here are all of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, ranked from worst to best.
14. The Last Airbender (2010)
The Last Airbender only has a runtime of an hour and 43 minutes, so trying to adapt the entire first season of the show was a terrible idea from the start. For people who didn’t follow the show, this film is a mess, often feeling rushed, underdeveloped, or just straight-up incomprehensible.
For people who followed the show, however, The Last Airbender isn’t just a mess — it’s an insult. The animated show was a masterpiece, boasting interesting characters and fantastic world-building. The movie, on the other hand, is a joyless slog, with boring characters and seemingly detached directing from Shyamalan. It doesn’t work as an adaptation of a show or a stand-alone title, making it an easy pick for Shyamalan’s worst film.
13. After Earth (2013)
Before the Oscars incident, there was a time when Will Smith was considered one of the most charming working actors — his name alone was a near-guarantee for a box office hit. Unfortunately, the man is woefully miscast in this movie, and his son Jaden Smith isn’t much better either.
This is a huge problem because these two characters are the focus of the film, and not only are they portrayed badly, they’re also written and directed as such dull one-dimensional people. It certainly doesn’t help either that the special effects are terrible and the screenplay is filled with plot holes and contrivances.
Shyamalan is no stranger to the slow burn and that’s what After Earth attempts, but the end result is clunky, forced, and lifeless.
12. The Happening (2008)
Make no mistake: The Happening is a terrible movie, but it’s also so entertainingly terrible it’s a straight-up riot to watch. Fans of the “so-bad-it’s-good” genre will adore this film, as it’s filled with countless unintentionally funny scenes and quotably bad dialogue.
However, for people not interested in such a film, you’ll want to stay as far as possible away from The Happening. The premise is ridiculous enough — a natural phenomenon is causing people in masses to commit suicide — but there’s also the atrocious acting, dislikeable characters, and noticeable absence of any thrill or suspense.
While enjoyable in ways Shyamalan probably didn’t intend, someone considering this as one of the director’s best films simply isn’t happening.
11. Wide Awake (1998)
It’s interesting what a rapidly different direction Shyamalan took with his career after his first film, Wide Awake. Where the director is now known for his love for horror and the supernatural, Wide Awake is a grounded comedy-drama all about a ten-year-old boy coping with the death of his grandfather.
Wide Awake has its moments as well as some pretty good performances, but Shyamalan’s writing and directing are unfortunately too sappy and heavy-handed to really land its punches. Some of the more dramatic moments feel forced and unnatural, and the music and the editing can often feel overly sentimental as if desperately trying to evoke emotion out of you.
Still, the film can be quite touching at times, mostly thanks to its likable cast.
10. Lady In The Water (2006)
There’s actually quite a lot to like about Lady in the Water, even if the film doesn’t work as a whole. Paul Giamatti gives a terrific performance, it’s beautiful to look at, and the score is masterfully done. It’s not a good film, but it’s not an uninspired one either — there was clearly a lot of thought and effort put into it.
Unfortunately, the screenplay and directing fail the film greatly. Shyamalan unfortunately takes a “tell-don’t-show” approach to the adult fairytale, making everything feel over-explained and convoluted.
This was also Shyamalan’s first bomb since The Sixth Sense both critically and commercially, and it would take quite a while before people started taking the director seriously again.
9. Old (2021)
Old has a lot of unrealized potential. There’s a fun idea here of a beach that makes you rapidly age, but nothing is done with it that provokes thought and discussion. Instead, Old is just a bizarre film that doesn’t seem to have any proper direction of where it wants to go.
There are a few creepy and unsettling moments here, but the majority of the film feels awkward and unnatural, with exposition narrated in the cheesiest or most unbelievable types of ways.
Still, you can’t deny how unique it is — nobody else would’ve attempted to make a film like this but Shyamalan, and it’s a film by him in every sense.
8. The Village (2004)
The Village is Shyamalan’s most polarizing film — some people think it’s an incredible and atmospheric slow burn, while others think it’s one of the worst horror films out there. Its polarizing nature may be a result of the movie’s marketing. The trailers made this film seem like an intensely scary film filled with thrill and excitement when what it really was was a quiet period romance with some horror elements mixed in.
Even with that in mind, though, The Village still feels too half-baked to really satisfy, but the movie is not without its moments. The cinematography is gorgeous, the score is terrific, and the film boasts stellar acting, especially from Bryce Dallas Howard and William Hurt.
It’s easy to see why this film is both loved and hated so much, and had the execution and marketing been better, this easily could’ve been one of the director’s best works.
7. Glass (2019)
The third and final installment in the Unbreakable trilogy, Glass is easily the weakest out of all three films, but there’s thankfully still a lot to like here.
Just like the previous two films, the cast is absolutely stellar in Glass, as James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, and Samuel L. Jackson all kill it as the main leads. The film also has a terrific first act. Its first 20 minutes are gripping and intriguing and strongly promise a marvelous conclusion to the trilogy.
Unfortunately, Shyamalan is unable to sustain the atmosphere of the film’s first 20 minutes, and the film soon becomes an uneven mess that can’t seem to decide which character it mostly wants to focus on. The third act is incredibly underwhelming, and after the greatness of both Unbreakable and Split, Glass just ends up being a disappointment.
6. Knock At The Cabin (2023)
Based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, one of horror’s most popular authors, Knock at the Cabin should’ve been better than it actually was. Unfortunately, the film is only run-of-the-mill good, and while it does, for the most part, work, it’s also largely forgettable and even boring at times.
Still, for its 100-minute runtime, Knock at the Cabin takes an alright screenplay and bolsters it with good acting and a creepy enough atmosphere to get under your skin while you’re watching it.
Shyamalan fans may be disappointed that the eccentric director has made such an unexceptional film, but horror fans just looking for a good enough film to kill time with can do a lot worse than this one.
5. The Visit (2015)
Lauded by many as a return-to-form for Shyamalan, The Visit broke a lengthy streak of terrible movies from the director simply by being good. Not fantastic by any means, but for what it is, The Visit is a highly entertaining film with (intentionally) great humor, winning performances, and even a fair share of heartfelt moments.
Granted, The Visit is not very scary and some of the horror gimmicks feel contrived, but that’s easy to forgive when the rest of the film is plain fun. There’s a sense of confidence here in Shyamalan’s directing that wasn’t present in many of his previous films, and after so many clumsily-made films from the director, The Visit feels like a breath of fresh air.
4. Signs (2002)
A masterclass in building tension, Signs is an instant modern classic of sci-fi horror. As always, Shyamalan loves his slow burns, but this one is especially effective. Every minute feels like a tense experience, and with Shyamalan expertly taking his time with the scares, the end result is a wonderful mix of all the best elements from Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Shyamalan himself.
This really is an effective film, and in such a crowded niche as horror movies about aliens, it’s even more impressive how much Signs stands out, especially when it tells such a simple story. When Shyamalan is at his best, he’s absolutely fantastic, the kind of director that makes films that you just can’t stop watching once you start.
3. Split (2016)
If The Visit made people hopeful about Shyamalan directing good movies again, Split bolstered that hope and made film fans start taking the man seriously as a director again. Who can blame them? Split is a phenomenal film with a superb cast, particularly Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy, who steals every scene that he’s in.
This film feels like old Shyamalan in all the best ways. It’s creepy, intense, and highly enjoyable, and while it’s common knowledge now that this film is part of the Unbreakable universe, its secret nature as a sequel was a fantastic surprise for any Unbreakable fans watching.
Granted, the film still works very well as a standalone, and while Shyamalan has yet to make another film as well-received since Split was released, this and The Visit gives us hope that the director still has a ton of great movies in him.
2. Unbreakable (2000)
With a new superhero movie coming out seemingly every other month these days, Unbreakable feels even more relevant now than it did when it was released 23 years ago. This film has aged like fine wine thanks to its fantastic approach to the superhero genre. Unbreakable feels darker and quieter than your average superhero flick, and thanks to Shyamalan’s great directing, the film ends up a highly engaging and rewarding experience.
One of the biggest reasons why the film is so engaging is because of how well-written the characters are — this film has you rooting for just about everyone, and Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson give stellar performances as the two leads.
It’d be interesting to see more superhero films take the Unbreakable approach, especially from Shyamalan himself. The director has a unique and distinct voice in the genre, especially because of how inconsistent superhero films were in the early 2000s.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Sixth Sense was the film that brought M. Night Shyamalan to director stardom, but it was also the film that doomed the director for decades to come. Nothing Shyamalan did after it ever found the same level of success, both commercially and critically.
It’s not hard to see why, though — The Sixth Sense is an absolute standout in Shyamalan’s filmography. Dripping in style and atmosphere, the horror film is a near masterpiece, even being one of the rare horror films to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. While children with supernatural abilities are a dime a dozen in horror films, Haley Joe Osment as Cole is an especially memorable and three-dimensional one thanks to the writing and acting.
It’s anyone’s guess if Shyamalan will ever write or direct a film as great as this one again, but even if he doesn’t, the director can still proudly claim he was responsible for one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It’s just a shame he may never be able to recreate the same level of success again.
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