The Top 10 Best M. Night Shyamalan Films

M. Night Shyamalan is back!

The director’s latest feature, Knock At The Cabin, is arriving in UK cinemas this week (Friday 3rd February), and you can already pre-order the Zavvi exclusive 4K steelbook.

We can’t wait to see his terrifying, apocalyptic chiller – and so, to celebrate, we’ve decided to look back at some of his best movies to date.

Mostly known for his twist-driven stories, Shyamalan is a much more chameleonic director than he’s typically given credit for. His films may often be scary, but they offer more than initially meets the eye.

10. The Lady In The Water (2006)

Warner Bros. Pictures

There was a decade-long period between The Village and The Visit where Shyamalan fell out of favour with critics and audiences – but none of his films from this era have been as ripe for a critical reappraisal as his distinctive take on a classic fairytale.

The Lady In The Water is a story about the very art of storytelling, the sort of thing critics are usually keen for. But making one of your characters a grumpy film critic, whose knowledge of cinematic tropes helps mythological being Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) in her quest to save humanity through storytelling, certainly didn’t help win favourable reviews.

Despite this, it’s become a minor cult classic, with the legendary French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma surprisingly naming it one of 2006’s best films.

9. The Visit (2015)

Universal Pictures

Pitched as Shyamalan’s return to low-budget filmmaking after blockbusters The Last Airbender and After Earth underwhelmed cinemagoers, this darkly comic found-footage horror was something of a rebound for the filmmaker, reminding audiences why they loved his creepy gothic tales in the first place.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a risk: he funded the movie entirely by himself, with several Hollywood studios turning it down after seeing the first cut – something they likely regretted once it made that budget back several times over.

Showing clear inspiration from Grimm’s fairytales, it may have one of the more predictable twists in Shyamalan’s oeuvre, but he uses that to his advantage.

We know there’s something sinister about the grandparents from the moment they’re introduced, helping him rise the tension to unbearable levels from the second Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) arrive at their house.

8. The Happening (2008)

20th Century Studios

Yes, really. Dubbed as one of the worst films ever made at the time of its release, The Happening initially faltered because audiences took the deliberately ridiculous movie at face value – even as Shyamalan reiterated in interviews that this was his darkly comic tribute to the B-movie disaster epics he grew up with.

Its over-the-top and incredibly silly nature was made even funnier by Shyamalan’s casting of Mark Wahlberg playing against type, portraying his genius science professor lead.

The director’s films are often peppered with gallows humour, but this is his one true comedy: an affectionate love letter to a genre he knows only works if you don’t take it seriously, played with the upmost deadpan seriousness.

7. Old (2021)

Universal Pictures

Working with one hell of a Twilight Zone-esque premise – what if a beach made you old? – Shyamalan’s foray into body horror is one strange beast indeed.

He has fun depicting life cycles speeding up in the most unusual ways, from pregnancies which last minutes to various diseases ravaging the bodies of those stuck on the beach seconds after they experience the first symptoms.

However, what lingers the most with Old is its surprising tenderness as some of the characters age beyond being able to physically make an escape.

Once the high concept horror hijinks are done with, there’s a surprisingly moving family drama hidden underneath.

6. The Village (2004)

Touchstone Pictures

After a string of critical and commercial successes, The Village was Shyamalan’s first film to debut to a mixed reception, largely due to audiences being split down the middle by the third act twist.

I have to confess that I don’t think the film would be quite as thought-provoking if it didn’t make that final big swing.

Without spoiling that sharp-left turn, the director’s gothic tale of a remote 19th century village haunted by faceless creatures in the surrounding woods is one of Hollywood’s first post-9/11 blockbusters.

Depicting a group of white villagers who refuse to leave their town through their fear of the ‘other’, it’s a pointed commentary of the American xenophobia of the era – something which the final act pushes even further.

5. Split (2016)

Universal Pictures

The Visit was the start of Shyamalan’s career rehabilitation, but it was Split that helped him return to the top of the box office.

It may be revealed to be the second chapter of a Philadelphia superhero trilogy, but this is the closest the director has ever got to making an old-fashioned monster movie.

James McAvoy is magnetically terrifying, having the time of his life portraying a killer with 24 distinct personalities – the last of which, The Beast, might be the most frightening creation in Shyamalan’s entire back catalogue.

4. Glass (2019)

Universal Pictures

For his follow-up, Shyamalan pit McAvoy’s multiple personalities against the hero and villain of his 2000 effort Unbreakable, for a crossover movie that couldn’t be further from The Avengers if it tried.

It may have proved to be too polarising in this approach – but for this writer, at least, it succeeded as a supernatural character study.

Much like Unbreakable before it, the action spectacle associated with the genre has been stripped down to its most minimalistic form, in order to fully dissect three damaged characters more interesting than your typical comic book leads.

3. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Buena Vista Pictures

After two small, underseen early features, Shyamalan pivoted to the gothic horror genre with the result becoming an unexpected pop culture phenomenon, establishing him as one of Hollywood’s most important voices seemingly overnight.

More than just a film about a child who can see dead people, featuring the biggest shock twist of the nineties, The Sixth Sense became a sensation because it’s a much quieter, soulful entry in the supernatural horror genre.

There’s no wonder it picked up several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

2. Unbreakable (2000)

Buena Vista Pictures

After The Sixth Sense became the second highest grossing film of 1999, beaten only by The Phantom Menace, Shyamalan’s next project became the hottest property in Hollywood.

And at a time when superhero movies had fallen out of favour, his grounded reinvention of comic book heroism felt like a breath of fresh air.

Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson deliver two of the finest performances in their respective careers in Unbreakable, so effective in playing men haunted by very different tragedies, it doesn’t immediately become apparent that this is a caped crusader origin story.

Comic book movies have never been better than this – and it’s not even based on one.

1. Signs (2002)

Buena Vista Pictures

One of the great science-fiction blockbusters of the 2000s, Shyamalan’s best film to date has some of the scariest moments in his entire filmography (that birthday party video), but the extra-terrestrial action comes second to a tale of family, grief, and paranoia.

If The Village felt like one of the first Hollywood movies to directly comment on the post-9/11 era, this is a chilling precursor: a document of a nation’s descent into madness after the unthinkable becomes true.

As with all of Shyamalan’s films, there is something far richer to be discovered beneath the blockbuster spectacle.

Knock At The Cabin is in UK cinemas from Friday 3rd February.

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Alistair Ryder

Alistair Ryder


Alistair is a culture journalist and lover of bad puns from Leeds. Subject yourself to his bad tweets by following him on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.