Though I can’t remember what movie I went to see, I’ll never forget the reaction to one of the trailers that played before it. For about two minutes, they watched the trailer for Devil, as they had the others. That was until a name appeared on screen: M. Night Shyamalan. At that point, the audience began to boo and laugh.
Stories of this popped up around the country, circulated and some called it a fabrication. I assure you, I saw it happen. All this for a film he didn’t even direct. They always say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but this felt like bad publicity. Shyamalan still stands as a fiercely debated figure in entertainment, having hit great highs and lows. In recent years, he’s seemed to have had a sort of renaissance. The real questions are, how did Shyamalan get here and where is he going?
After a lackluster debut with the long-shelved comedy Wide Awake in 1998, Shyamalan would come into prominence with the 1999 smash hit The Sixth Sense. It is often forgotten just how popular that particular film was, bested only by Star Wars: Episode I in its year of release and only recently dethroned as the top grossing Supernatural Horror film of all time by Stephen King’s IT. Though reviews for the film weren’t all shining, The New York Times’ Stephen Holden called the film “…gaggingly mawkish supernatural kitsch…”, The Sixth Sense would quickly become a pop culture touchstone and establish “ I see dead people” jokes as an easy laugh for comedic writers. Hold on, can we go back to that quote for a second? Like, I know I’m being super informal here too, but rarely does snark require such verbiage. I’d be impressed if it didn’t make Holden sound like a complete jerk. Anyway, the film was an undeniable success and undoubtedly anchored by Bruce Willis’ performance as Dr. Malcom Crowe. Here, Shyamalan established the moody tone and tortured characters he would be best known for.
“It’s like when people talk about Jackie Brown and they go, ‘Well, that’s a disappointment for Quentin.’ No, no, it’s not. It’s a great movie. It just isn’t Pulp Fiction 2. Unbreakable is an amazing movie. It just isn’t The Second Sense or whatever the fuck that movie was. – Samuel L. Jackson, EW.com, 2015
With a major hit under his belt, M. Night’s next move might have been his most daring and important. In the year 2000, Superhero films were a rarity, but with his insane success with The Sixth Sense, Disney/Buena Vista approved a $75 Million dollar budget for Unbreakable. Not overtly a superhero film, it found itself with a budget equal to that of the same year’s X-Men. Bruce Willis and long time Comic Book fan Samuel L. Jackson eagerly signed on to star. Grossing over $95 million, the film was not not as acclaimed as The Sixth Sense nor as profitable. That said, it did find an audience. At the time of its release, Comic Book fans were not often treated to films of their favorite characters. Unbreakable was even more of a rarity, perhaps even a singularity. Though it is certainly based around superheroes, the dark and brooding film shares little with others, even in today’s vibrant environment. Marketed more as a supernatural drama, those who already had the tropes of four color heroes in their head were treated to a remarkable surprise. Shyamalan did not call it a superhero film but “a drama about the subject of comic books”. This is evident in the film as it is both about those with superpowers and those who find an interest in the art itself. Unbreakable is not only a commentary on the functionality of superheroes, but on the audience’s relationship with the characters. Shyamalan had planned three films, but with box office lower than hoped for, he shelved them. Shyamalan was still in favor, but his stock had slipped a bit.
“…I was making a movie just for me with Unbreakable, and in Signs there is something I can connect with everybody…” – M. Night Shyamalan, Philadelphia Film Festival XXI, 2012
In 2002, Shyamalan would return to blockbuster status with Signs. Night (hey, that’s what his friends call him) wanted to balance his work a bit more. He had taken serious risks in Unbreakable and, well, it hadn’t quite paid off in dollars. Signs was conceptualized as a relatable film for Middle America and a break from the dour tone of his previous two films. Making more than four times its budget, it certainly succeeded in that. That said, it was around this time that I first noticed something. Shyamalan was gaining a reputation for making a certain type of film, you know what I’m talking about: The Twist. I try to cite articles when it comes to most of these arguments, but my testimony here can be taken as a primary source. Movie nerds were talking about Shyamalan’s movies, and a lot of it was becoming mockery. Perhaps this is a symptom of commercial success or just the strange need for some people to deride the work of others. Regardless, the director’s signature touch was starting to feel like a fad. Shyamalan was becoming as much a brand as he was an artist in the eyes of the public. That was becoming a problem. Though I won’t dote on it too much, some cast 2004’s Shyamalan as an egomaniac and it’s hard to say how much of that was true, but Vulture did an interesting piece on an especially bizarre aspect of that branding. Even if it wasn’t Night at the helm of this image, the damage had been done. Two years later, he would follow-up with The Village, and quite frankly the situation would get worse. Though it did make some money, criticism from the public grew harsh. Roger Ebert would call it “a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn.” I can’t help but agree with Ebert’s call here, and it wasn’t just me. The style that made him famous was turning sour as he seemed to be losing control over, or perhaps focus on, the quality of his work. The mocking continued.
“The things that made me conventional were celebrated, and the things that made me unconventional were not celebrated.” – M. Night Shyamalan, when asked about his break from Disney, Time.com, 2006
Shyamalan would break from Disney/Buena Vista and jump to Warner Bros. Pictures after The Village, largely due to creative differences centered around his next film. That next film would be 2006’s Lady in the Water. Night strayed away from his “brand” and crafted a fairy tale/comedy. Well, what he considered at the time to be a comedy. The film would be poorly received, both critically and monetarily. I would consider myself a fan of Shyamalan’s work, and this uncharacteristically unbalanced and self-centered film is hard for me to defend. Night went to Warner Bros. to prove that the artist’s vision should be paramount, and only damaged that argument. However, it may be this disaster that set the director back on the path to success.
“The tonality was carefully chosen in terms of approaching it as kind of a high-end B-movie and hopefully it will be taken that way and let them enjoy the storytelling.” – M. Night Shyamalan, commenting on The Happening, Comingsoon.net, 2008
Fox would release 2008’s The Happening to little critical fanfare or financial returns, but I would argue that the film succeeds in other ways. Shyamalan sought to create a B-Film and one would be hard pressed to argue that he didn’t. Yes, The Happening has a ridiculous premise and some amazingly bizarre scenes (see here) but it almost seems as if the director is mocking himself. Perhaps this was a sort of creative catharsis, intentionally doing it wrong so that doing it right was a clearer. Night followed The Happening with his adaptation of The Last Airbender and Will Smith’s After Earth, neither of which were hits but both admittedly targeted toward younger audiences. Shyamalan took some heat for Airbender, but a lot of the focus was on Will Smith for After Earth, as the director’s involvement had not been widely publicized. The director reportedly didn’t have final cut on either. Though his reputation had not necessarily improved, Shyamalan was finally free from his own failing brand.
“‘The Visit’ is a balance of who I am. I’m a little mischievous.”- M. Night Shyamalan, Movieaddicts.com, 2015
In 2009, Jason Blum founded Blumhouse Productions. Specializing in found footage and low budget films, Blum was able to release some massive hits and Blumhouse has since spread its Cthulu-like tentacles into books and television. By 2015, Blum had already produced Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge and Academy Award © Winner Whiplash. Blumhouse is unique in contemporary film, a company reminiscent of the heydays of New World Pictures and, dare I speak the high-holy name, Cannon. In 2014, Shyamalan, using in-part his fee from After Earth, quietly produced Sundowning. With no studio pressure, Night created what he considers to be his first pure horror film. Blum, who had been pursuing Shyamalan for some time, saw the film and brought it to Blumhouse, where it found itself with a Universal Studios distribution deal. After some adjustments, Night was able to find a balance that both he and Blum were happy with. Soon, the film would be renamed The Visit. Produced for a little more than $5 million, it would go on to gross over $98 million.
“Strangely, it isn’t really about the low-budget thing that is why I’m with Jason. I like his taste. Whiplash is one of my favorite movies from that year, if not my favorite movie from that year. I like his taste as a producer, and I like his demeanor. He’s very calm. He just makes me feel calm through everything.” M. Night Shyamalan, speaking about Jason Blum, DenOfGeek.com, 2017
In 2017, Blumhouse and Universal Studios released Split, a return to form for Shyamalan in more ways than one. Night’s confidence is palpable in this film, and I can’t help but believe that it has a lot to do with Jason Blum. Check out this dialogue from a few years back. These are two creators with an immense amount of respect for each other. After years of struggling to meet the expectations of producers and the like, Night was able to find a producer whose intent was to let him create the films he wanted. Blum’s expectation is that Night is himself, not just a brand. Split’s tone is more in line with his most acclaimed work, proving that even if Shyamalan didn’t always deliver, he never lost it. Split was a profound success, produced for $9 million and grossing over $278 million. Yeah, that much. Oh, from this point on, there are some spoilers for Split that you don’t want to read if you haven’t seen the film. Go, go watch it. It was on HBOGO last I checked. Okay…now they’re gone. The ultimate reveal that Split was not only tied to Unbreakable, but is actually the second film that had been planned years ago is incredibly thematic within Shyamalan’s real life narrative. Yeah, that’s a touch cheesy, but since the man himself is concerned with the importance of the human spirit in his films, I think he might appreciate it. As mentioned before, Unbreakable was M. Night Shyamalan unleashed. A huge budget spent on the exact film that he wanted to make. Though not a massive success, it found its audience. Now, once again free from the typical restraints of big budget films, Shyamalan was able to return to the world he created and always intended to expand. There is a twist in Split, but it is one that is beyond The Beast. The twist in Split is that, without any fanfare or a huge budget, Night brought us back to the height of his creativity and showed his faithful that he’d never left their corner. When the movie hit, dozens of my friends told me I had to see it, but they couldn’t tell me why. When I found out what it was it brought me, and I assume many others, to the time where a young director seemed to have changed the industry for the better. The fans of Unbreakable won the long game. Soon, we’ll have Glass, the third film in this Comic Book trilogy. No matter how good or bad it is, I don’t think it will ever hold the gravity that Split now does. Split is the reward of taking the risk and making the better film, twice.
M. Night Shyamalan finally has his audience, one that doesn’t need a brand and is a lot bigger than you might have thought.