Regardless if you view M. Night Shyamalan as a genius with a few poor outings or a lousy director with a couple of lucky breaks, his films are rarely boring. Personally, I’m always fascinated by every M. Night Shyamalan movie, even if several leave me scratching my head in bewilderment.
Still, Shyamalan is one of the few living directors with a body of work adorned with his distinctive style. While I keep waiting for him to finally turn a corner toward all-time greatness, he seems content making his brand of low-budget horror regardless of critical or audience response. As such, Shyamalan’s devotion to his craft must be commended, even celebrated. Few writer/directors are willing to take as many creative risks as M. Night Shyamalan, for better or worse.
With the director’s latest effort, Knock at the Cabin, hitting theaters, we thought it’d be fun to look back on his 30-plus-year career. Below you’ll find M. Night Shyamalan movies ranked from worst to best. Don’t expect a last-second twist, dear readers: you already know where this is going.
15. Praying with Anger (1992)
Praying with Anger was Shyamalan’s first movie and that inexperience shows in both its direction and script. While its exploration of the cultural clash between Indian and Western values is intriguing, it isn’t able to do justice to its high-concept themes. It’s strictly for completionists and those that want to see Shyamalan’s full evolution as a filmmaker.
14. After Earth (2013)
The Happening is probably Shyamalan’s worst effort, but at least it feels like a product of his imagination. After Earth, however, lacks any of the director’s trademark quirks, resulting in an insipid sci-fi vehicle designed for the single purpose of propping up its young star, Jaden Smith. There’s nothing to savor aside from the occasional CGI landscapes and a half-dozen half-assed Will Smith cameos. This is Shyamalan’s coup de grâce for The Happening.
13. The Happening (2008)
The Happening is the type of film that every director needs to make — a movie so putrid it causes them to reconsider their purpose in the universe. It took five years for Shyamalan to recover from this fiasco starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Still, without The Happening, likely, we never get Split, The Visit, or Glass. So, I’m willing to give Shyamalan a pass. Hollywood pressure obviously short-circuited the man’s creative fabric. After back-to-back critical misfires in The Village and Lady in the Water, it’s clear The Happening is a last-ditch effort from a man who saw his star power fading and decided to take one final wild shot at fame and glory.
Unfortunately, The Happening is Ed Wood-level terrible, featuring lousy acting, a ludicrous plot, and awful dialogue. Wahlberg acts as if he’d rather be anywhere else. Deschanel bats her lovely eyes but often looks like she would rather slit her own throat than utter another line of painful dialogue.
Is The Happening so bad that it’s good? Not really, though there is humor in the gruesome ways people elect to kill themselves — the death-by-lawnmower scene is fantastic. Let’s just say I’m glad Shyamalan got this turd of his system early.
12. Wide Awake (1998)
What happens when you team Shyamalan with late-90s Rosie O’Donnell? Well, the painfully dull Wide Awake, a genial family comedy that feels more like a paint-by-numbers Disney knockoff than a unique piece of filmmaking made by the man who would unleash The Sixth Sense a year later. The film is all right, just nothing you haven’t seen before, which, all things considered, is quite extraordinary in and of itself.
11. The Last Airbender (2010)
Critics and audiences balked at Shyamalan’s take on the popular cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. While I only saw the pic once in theaters, I dug it and would have welcomed more. This was the director’s first foray into action territory, and some of his sequences are thrilling. Shyamalan sprinkles the picture with odd characters who must overcome self-doubt to summon the powers needed to beat the bad guys, culminating in an epic showdown that looks cool and occasionally hits a few emotional beats.
Not the stinker many dubbed it as (primarily due to poor casting choices), The Last Airbender marked Shyamalan’s first and only attempt at blockbuster cinema. (No, After Earth doesn’t count.)
10. Lady in the Water (2006)
If The Village exposed cracks in Shyamalan’s game, Lady in the Water smashed the man open with a jackhammer. Wildly ambitious to a fault, this would-be fantasy gets so lost up its own ass that it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood producer reading the script and giving a thumbs-up without some life-threatening force being applied to his person.
I typically admire Shyamalan’s go-for-broke mentality, but something must be said about a filmmaker who casts himself as the world’s savior in a movie featuring giant eagles, tree wolves, and enough dumb plot contrivances to leave viewers with a hangover the following day. I get what the man was going for, but holy s—, Night, you’re too good a director not to know that this entire story was garbage from the word go.
Lady in the Water has two things that make it worth a look: James Newton Howard’s lavish score and Paul Giamatti’s epic performance. Everything else deserves to be flushed down the toilet.
9. Old (2021)
Old weaves a deliciously morbid fairy tale that ultimately unravels the instant you think about it too much. Shyamalan dials up the creep factor and never lets his foot off the gas, often chucking creative Hail Marys to get our attention. At one point, two teenagers, stranded on a mysterious beach that quickens the aging process, have sex. Within minutes, the young girl is full-on preggo and forced to endure labor moments later.
Old isn’t so much a full-fledged film as an ambitious idea that only sporadically pays off. Still, Shyamalan remains one of the world’s most audacious filmmakers, and Old, his fourteenth effort, demonstrates a continued willingness to dive head-first into an idea, no matter how outlandish the outcome.
8. The Village (2004)
There’s so much to admire about The Village, from the incredible cast (led by a superb Bryce Dallas Howard), Roger Deakins’ striking cinematography, and James Newton Howard’s impressive score, that it’s a shame when Shyamalan sullies a captivating film with a preposterous (and unnecessary) twist.
The Village tells the story of an old-timey community enjoying a blissful life in a lush locale surrounded by woods where they frolic and play and keep red away. Red is a bad color, you see; banned from these parts as it attracts monsters living amongst the trees. When one of their party is injured, Ivy (Howard), a brave blind woman, must venture into the unknown to find a cure.
The Village works best in its early goings, where it presents the day in, day out simplicity of country life, love, and survival. While the finale certainly works and ties into the more significant themes of loss and sacrifice, one wishes Shyamalan dared to follow through with his kooky premise and deliver a horror tale with real monsters.
7. Knock at the Cabin (2023)
While I noted how Shyamalan often shoots himself in the foot by trying to get too cute with his storytelling rather than follow through with his simple premise, it turns out that Plan B isn’t much more effective.
Knock at the Cabin is tense, well-acted (particularly by Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge), and features some interesting ideas. Shyamalan knows how to create a dark atmosphere seeping with dread without overstepping his actors. He’s a subtle showman who knows all the tricks and clearly understands how to craft a dynamic scene. In fact, Knock at the Cabin might be the most un-Shyamalan project to date.
While I certainly enjoyed the effort, the more I think about the picture, the more I’m left scratching my head. After two hours of intense buildup featuring people scratching and clawing their way to survival, the movie just sort of ends. No zany twists, no big revelations. It’s quite disappointing considering everything that came before felt like it was building toward something spectacular.
At this point, I’ll rank it higher than The Village, but only because the ending didn’t leave me rolling my eyes. Is that a sign of maturity for our cunning director, or an indication that he’s running out of ideas?
6. Glass (2019)
Two decades after his breakout hit, The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan shamelessly unleashed Glass right smack dab in the middle of the superhero renaissance. Some hated it, some loved it, and most were confused. After 20 years of Shyamalan, if you walked into Glass expecting something akin to Iron Man, that’s probably more your fault than his.
Those who get a kick out of Shyamalan will likely walk away happy as he delivers the most unconventional superhero movie imaginable. Even now, I don’t know if Glass achieves what it sets out to do — it’s often a clunky showcase of the man’s best and worst tendencies as a filmmaker. Either way, it’s still a fascinating filmmaking exercise. The twist is, there is no twist: it was right there, staring you straight in the face all along.
5. The Visit (2015)
After a period of creative misfires, Shyamalan bounced back with The Visit, a creepy (and often amusing) tale about a pair of youngsters (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) who spend a week with their grandparents and get more than they bargained for.
By 2015, the found footage genre had worn thin, but Shyamalan finds unique ways to shock and awe (that crawl space scene is the stuff of nightmares), even if the plot has more holes than a lump of Swiss cheese. Clever, fun, and quite disturbing, The Visit is a delightfully morbid dark comedy.
4. Unbreakable (2000)
Slow, atmospheric, and haunting, Unbreakable wasn’t the slam dunk audiences expected after The Sixth Sense. The sudden about-face from horror to superhuman drama (before superheroes were even cool) works in the film’s favor. While it’s not as clever as Shyamalan thinks, Unbreakable stuns with its eerie atmosphere, which is brought to life by Eduardo Serra’s excellent cinematography, bonkers ideas, and delicate execution.
Bruce Willis has the Shyamalan formula down to a T (why wasn’t he in Signs?), while Samuel L. Jackson offers solid support in a pivotal role that provides plenty of surprises. The final twist may leave you wanting … luckily, Shyamalan elected to continue the story later in his career.
3. Split (2016)
Shyamalan’s brilliance is all over Split, a shocking and delightfully campy psychological thriller about a young woman named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) who gets kidnapped by a creepy fellow suffering from an extreme case of multiple personality disorder. Dennis (James McAvoy) has 23 distinct personalities, with another known as the Beast on the way, each with unusual abilities one might describe as downright super villainy (cue mysterious music). Will Casey and the other trapped women escape before the Beast eats them alive?
Split’s sluggish pace might put off some, but patient viewers will find a wickedly funny, extremely intense, expertly crafted horror drama only Shyamalan could produce — oh, and the twist actually pays off.
2. Signs (2002)
I’m a sucker for Signs. Sure, it’s a tad cheesy, and the ending is a letdown after two carefully constructed hours of tense buildup. Still, Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix sell the nonsense with sturdy (though unspectacular) performances. At the same time, Shyamalan’s taut direction and James Newton Howard’s incredible score often echo the best of Alfred Hitchcock.
There are moments of genuine dread in Signs and enough terrifying scares to satisfy horror enthusiasts. Still, Shyamalan has bigger things on his mind than well-timed jump scares and builds an emotional family drama that supplies more weight than you might expect.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Was there any other choice other than The Sixth Sense as Shyamalan’s best? The others on this list all feature bits of the director’s strengths and weaknesses, but The Sixth Sense is the only film in his oeuvre to flawlessly execute his brazen style. The drama, the scares, the twist, all of it works. There’s nothing to criticize here.
A tight script, strong performances from Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, and Toni Collette, excellent direction, and a powerful score from James Newton Howard elevate this remarkable ghost story, resulting in a perfect film that somehow gets better on each viewing.