He’s king of the twist, master of tension, and sometimes wildly inconsistent in his output – but at his best, M. Night Shyamalan is one of cinema’s greatest genre directors (and, as he’s proven with Servant, one of TV’s too). With a wide-ranging filmography spanning Spielberg-ian alien sci-fi, anime-influenced adaptations, gut-wrenching horror and stripped-back superhero fare, Shyamalan is as unpredictable as many of his movies’ final acts.
With new existential thriller Knock At The Cabin, the director trades in big twists for tight, truly affecting filmmaking. As the film arrives in cinemas, Empire has wrangled all of Shyamalan’s major movie releases into an official ranking – have a read below:
13. The Last Airbender (2010)
This adaptation of the beloved animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender did not, it’s fair to say, connect in the way that everyone hoped. The story follows Aang (Noah Ringer), a child “avatar” able to channel the four elements, who became frozen in a block of ice and doomed the four nations to fall out of harmony – until he’s thawed out and forced to confront his destiny. The problems here are not so much down to the cast – you can’t go far wrong with Dev Patel, for example, and untried talent Ringer is absolutely fine – but the casting wasn’t true to its source material and, more importantly, the show’s complicated, fascinating characters got squeezed away to nothing as Shyamalan struggled to fit the sprawling plot into a film run time. What’s left is a generic action movie with some unclear philosophical messages scattered alongside, with nothing like the charm or humour of the animated series. A near-total misfire.
Read the Empire review of The Last Airbender.
12. After Earth (2013)
Father and son space rangers (more or less) crash-land on a dangerous planet, pursued by a deadly monster that can smell fear. The imperiled pair are played by Will Smith and son Jaden, who were so great together in The Pursuit Of Happyness. So far, so good. But the gimmick that the dangerous, hostile planet is actually an abandoned Earth never really amounts to much, given that the principal threat is an alien one, and the thorny dynamic between the two heroes mostly succeeds in making the elder Smith seem near-abusive, and the younger one relentlessly prickly. There’s the nub of a good idea here, about facing fear and guilt and dealing with loss, as well as an interesting coming-of-age thread where Jaden’s Kitai learns to stand up for himself – but it never coheres as an adventure story.
Read the Empire review of After Earth.
11. Lady In The Water (2006)
After four back-to-back films drenched in tension and moody mysteries, Shyamalan shifted gears and conceived a sort of modern-day fairytale, with seriously mixed results. Bryce Dallas Howard’s mermaid-like “Narf” called Story (no snickering, now) appears in the pool of an apartment building to offer divine inspiration for a writer – played, eye-rollingly, by Shyamalan himself – and change the world for the better (ok, snickering is inevitable). It received a critical kicking, not least because it features a truly hissable critic played by Bob Balaban, but to be honest, critics should have a thick skin about that sort of thing: if you’re going to dish it out, you have to be able to take it. The bigger issue is all the complicated plotting, which takes away from the charming relationship between Howard’s starry-eyed muse and Paul Giamatti’s sad sack building manager. It’s a touch better than the reviews suggested, but still nowhere near the top-tier of Shyamalan’s work.
Read the Empire review of Lady In The Water.
10. The Happening (2008)
On initial release, The Happening was widely derided. These days, it’s still widely derided, but with caveats. If not quite the all-out disaster that reputation has it, there’s no denying that The Happening remains a bizarre concoction. The central conceit – that a mysterious phenomenon is causing people to kill themselves en masse – is deeply upsetting, as are many of its scenes of sudden suicide. And yet, some of those deaths feel undeniably comic in their nature (a zookeeper feeds himself to his lions), and the arch dialogue and performances intentionally indebted to the tone of old B-movies often lands in the realm of parody. It’s tonally all over the place, full of baffling choices that are far from accidental but almost impossible to decipher. Mark Wahlberg looks utterly lost playing a science teacher, Zooey Deschanel flatlines as his wife Alma, and by the time they’re all running away from gusts of wind in a field, it’s impossible not to giggle. Maybe that was the point? Future humans will be flummoxed (but likely have a fair bit of fun) trying to figure it out.
Read the Empire review of The Happening.
9. Glass (2019)
From his famous narrative turns, to his unusual directing choices, to his pivots into different genres and tones, it’s clear that Shyamalan never quite does what you expect. And that’s absolutely the case with Glass, the trilogy-capper on his stealth superhero(ish) series that began with Unbreakable and picked up over 15 years later with a cameo from Bruce Willis’ David Dunn in Split. Ostensibly centred around Samuel L. Jackson’s villain Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass, the stage was set for a proper comic book-influenced hero vs villain showdown. Instead, Shyamalan largely avoids action altogether, having Glass, Dunn and James McAvoy’s Horde locked up in the lab of superhero skeptic psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) as she probes the nature of their existence. What follows is a pile-up of ponderous conversations, unconvincing narrative contrivances, and underwhelming conclusions. It’s less that Glass is actively bad, than it just feels like a major missed opportunity in paying off a saga nearly two decades in the making.
Read the Empire review of Glass.
8. Old (2021)
Like The Happening before it, Old pitches itself at a singular oddball tonal register – but with considerably better results. Its eerie premise, about a family who rocks up on a beach, soon realise they’re all rapidly ageing across a day and physically cannot leave, is one that taps into primal fears of oncoming death and familial loss. But far from mining the depths of the human experience for scares, Old is instead too busy having fun being, well, bonkers. There’s a rapper character called Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), impromptu beach-surgery, a guy running around and slashing people up, a hysterical (in more ways than one) pregnancy – and eventually, against all the odds, a thorough explanation of why exactly the beach is ageing everyone up so rapidly, why its visitors have ended up there, and why it might all help save the world. It’s ludicrous nonsense from front to back, but the audacity is to be revelled in.
Read the Empire review of Old.
7. The Visit (2015)
If you’re keeping track, the Shyamalan comeback really began here. After flailing in underwhelming big-budget sci-fi and fantasy fare for years, the director stripped it all back for his first proper frightfest – a low-budget Blumhouse found-footage horror (with comedy beats too) that’s the anti-Sixth Sense. In some ways, it felt like a shame to see a director whose hallmarks had been thoughtful scripts and masterful film craft trade it all in for shaky-cam visuals and in-your-face kid-speak dialogue (“Swerve, girl!”), as youngsters Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Taylor (Ed Oxenbould) stay with their estranged grandparents for a week and experience off-the-wall antics after dark. But while its ‘old people are creepy!’ tropes are dicey, there’s no denying that The Visit is, in all other senses, big, splashy fun, from a filmmaker who really needed to cut loose at the time. Oh, and yes, there is a twist – and it’s pleasantly batshit.
Read the Empire review of The Visit.
6. Split (2016)
Forget everything else: this was the twist of Shyamalan’s career. As it turned out, his psychological horror about a man (James McAvoy) whose various dissociative identities include a serial-killing monster known as The Beast, wasn’t a standalone movie. No, as a brief glimpse of Bruce Willis made clear in the closing seconds, it was actually a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, establishing a wider world of super-humans. Nobody saw it coming, and it really did deliver a frisson of excitement upon release. While its fictionalised take on the very-real DID is far from nuanced or respectful (in fact, mental health is almost never well-handled in the Shyamalan canon), Split did continue the trajectory of Shyamalan’s comeback from the schlocky scares of The Visit – and McAvoy is undeniably impressive in embodying the various mentally and physically distinct personalities inhabiting Kevin Wendell Crumb. Anya Taylor-Joy, too, cemented her scream queen credibility as Casey, a high-schooler trying not to become The Beast’s next victim. Just, don’t think too hard about the politics of it, ok?
Read the Empire review of Split.
5. The Village (2004)
By the time The Village arrived, audience expectations for a Shyamalan movie were entirely centred on the twist – and while this one features an interesting idea, it’s clumsily handled, both ponderous and self-satisfied in execution. But viewed as a whole, The Village is a far better (and bigger) film than just its ending. Bryce Dallas Howard makes a striking screen debut as Ivy, a young woman living in an olde-timey American settlement surrounded by woods filled with bloodthirsty monsters – until it becomes clear that she’ll have to venture out there amid a life-or-death conundrum. The cast is stacked (Joaquin Phoenix! William Hurt! Sigourney Weaver! Brendan Gleeson! Cherry Jones! Adrien Brody, though the less said about his role the better!), it’s gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins, the popping-colour production design is excellent, the monster stuff is properly scary, and the village and its inhabitants are largely well-drawn. And for all its flaws, the ending has real resonance for a post-9/11 world where uncertainty reigned and a seemingly simpler era might feel like an idyllic place to live.
Read the Empire review of The Village.
4. Knock At The Cabin (2023)
Believe the hype: Shyamalan’s latest really does find him back on blazing form. Boasting well-drawn characters, pulse-pounding tension, moral quandaries and excellent performances, it brings him back into the realm of his stellar early run for the first time in years. Based on Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin At The End Of The World (with a title tweaked to reflect its significant divergence from the source), it centres on a couple (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) as their idyllic rural getaway is interrupted by four strangers who present them with a horrible choice: one member of the family must willingly kill one of the others, or the world will end. Cue a tale of both survival and philosophical exploration as the absurd nature of their conundrum comes into question, with real emotional underpinnings. Especially outstanding is Dave Bautista, bringing a palpable, sorrowful warmth to his performance as Leonard – a major landmark in his evolving acting career.
Read the Empire review of Knock At The Cabin.
3. Signs (2002)
Everybody remembers where they were when they first saw that scene in Signs. You know the one – where Joaquin Phoenix and the kids (a young Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) are watching the news, and see the footage of the Brazilian birthday party where an unmistakably extra-terrestrial entity casually strolls past the window. It’s an astonishing scare, a masterfully-created image destined to go down as one of M Night’s greatest. While Signs’ ‘everything happens for a reason’ climax is often derided, much of the film shares that sequence’s sense of vision and intent – this is Shyamalan at his most Spielbergian (no coincidence, given the alien invasion theme), grounding the story in a believable Americana and presenting an everyday angle on the experience of first contact. Released almost a year to the day after 9/11, it presents a terrifying societal shift viewed largely from a distance – on TV screens, in the family home and around the local neighbourhood. Yes, the end swings wildly, but the spine-tingling crop circle imagery, engaging character work, and adrenaline-spiking setpieces (the alien fingers under the door, the home invasion) conjure considerable awe.
Read the Empire review of Signs.
2. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The one that established Shyamalan’s reputation as a master of tone – and especially of the twist – still holds up brilliantly. It’s sombre and verges on slow, which is what makes the moments of terror (the girl under the bed, memorably played by a young Mischa Barton) pop out so strongly. It helps that the director had an extraordinary collaborator in the young Haley Joel Osment as the boy who sees dead people – but this was also the film on which Shyamalan forged what would become a lasting relationship with Bruce Willis as child psychologist Malcolm, who helps young Cole cope with the ghosts’ demands. It’s a smart script, superbly shot, full of suspense and deeply emotional. Inevitably, the seismic nature of that twist ensured that that was the main thing audiences ended up talking about – but it would be a pretty good film without it, working simply as an eerie ghost story with a great child protagonist. That finale, though, elevates it into one of the most memorable thrillers of the last 30 years.
Read the Empire review of The Sixth Sense.
1. Unbreakable (2000)
How’s this for a Shyamalan twist: he predicted the impending superhero boom all along. When Unbreakable first arrived, the nascent Marvel box-office takeover was still years off – but if the writer-director had a superpower of his own, it was seeing how prevalent those comic book archetypes would soon become, delivering his own deconstruction of a man of steel and a budding big bad that ends where most origin stories would be just getting started. Bruce Willis excels in schlubby everyman mode as David Dunn, the commuter who survives a monumental train crash without a single scratch, coming to realise that his very nature might be extra-ordinary. It’s a daring story, drenched in mystery, and in true early Shyamalan style, the mood here is sombre but seriously cinematic – its gritty tone and slow-burn plot accentuating its subversions of what was then a solely spandex-clad genre. Taking all the promise of The Sixth Sense and running with it, Unbreakable has only grown in stature as superhero cinema exploded in its wake.
Read the Empire review of Unbreakable.