M. Night Shyamalan Biography and Filmography

M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan on the set of 'The Visit'. © Universal

M. Night Shyamalan (born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan) is one of the few Hollywood blockbuster directors today who regularly finds a home within the horror/suspense genre. Although his films often feature supernatural and otherworldly phenomena, they often aren't considered horror movies -- in part because they tend to mix in elements of fantasy, sci fi, thriller and drama and in part because they're relatively family-friendly affairs, focusing on plot and interpersonal relationships rather than explicit content.

This clean, "classy" style of fright filmmaking has drawn comparisons to legendary director Alfred Hitchcock -- a parallel aided by Shyamalan's propensity for twisty storylines and cameo appearances in his own movies.

The Sixth Sense:

After his financially disastrous feature film debut, the comedy-drama Wide Awake, Shyamalan made his first foray into horror/suspense with 1999's The Sixth Sense. The modestly budgeted film about a child psychologist (Bruce Willis) treating a boy (Haley Joel Osment) who claims to see ghosts exceeded all expectations, becoming the second-highest-grossing film of the year (after The Phantom Menace) and garnering six Academy Award nominations, including Best Director.

The Sixth Sense established Shyamalan not only as a master of suspense, but also as a blockbuster filmmaker. It established his style of dramatic, personalized thrills, shaped by both his direction and his writing.

Perhaps most notably, though, it established his slight-of-hand storytelling, which culminated in one of the most infamous "twist endings" in cinematic history. The twists would continue through Shyamalan's next few movies, becoming a trademark that would characterize his early career.

Unbreakable:

It's inevitable that a follow-up to a smash like The Sixth Sense would disappoint, both critically and financially, and Unbreakable (2000) had that unfortunate distinction.

The film again starred Bruce Willis, this time as a man who discovers that he has superhuman abilities: tremendous strength, extrasensory perception and "unbreakable" bones. He ends up using these gifts to become a superhero of sorts, catching a serial killer in the process.

Like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable portrayed the human side of supernatural occurrences, while also delivering suspense and a twist ending. Despite Shyamalan's fear of being pigeonholed as a "scary movie" director, the studio marketed Unbreakable as a spooky film in the vein of The Sixth Sense. The tactic didn't parlay the film into the runaway success that The Sixth Sense enjoyed, but Unbreakable still managed to gross almost $100 million domestically at the box office, more than enough to ensure the director's A-list status.

Signs:

Shyamalan struck gold in 2002 with his next movie, Signs. Featuring the star power of Mel Gibson, it found immediate success, raking in over $200 million at the US box office. The film explores the phenomenon of crop circles from the point of view of a rural Pennsylvania family who finds that their farm is ground zero for an alien invasion.

The aliens in are decidedly more ominous than those in, say Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as Shyamalan plays the invasion with a horror sensibility, delivering scares without the modern crutch of gore.

Although the film's reception was largely positive, some fans and critics began to tire of the director's twist endings, which by now threatened to become career-defining gimmicks.

The Village:

Criticism mounted for his follow-up, 2004's The Village, whose twist ending turned off many vocal critics and fans. The movie as a whole failed to garner the critical praise of Signs, and many viewers felt that it was a misfire. The film's setting was much different from Shyamalan's previous efforts, taking place in a 19th-century township in which the villagers live in fear of creatures who occupy the surrounding woods.

In the writer-director's typical fashion, the film focuses more on the human dynamics between the characters than on the supernatural element of the "creatures." Despite the criticism it garnered, though, The Village managed to earn over $100 million in the US, the third time in four tries that Shyamalan had reached that mark.

Lady in the Water:

In 2006, Shyamalan would receive his harshest criticism to date for the film that strayed farthest from the horror/suspense fold, Lady in the Water. Like Unbreakable, it sought to take a supernatural tale -- in this case, a fairy tale as opposed to a comic book -- and make it "real." In the film, a man comes in contact with a water nymph who's pursued by an ominous, grassy wolf-like creature. The end result was a hodgepodge of fantasy and monster movie that was panned by critics and fans alike (although ironically, it didn't have a twist ending). It was the first big-budget financial bomb of the director's career.

The Happening:

Although he'd shied away from being labeled a director of scary movies, Shyamalan returned to that route for his next project, 2008's The Happening, perhaps avoiding from the family-friendly fantasy of Lady in the Water in hopes of recapturing the suspenseful magic that spurred the box office success of The Sixth Sense and Signs. 

Unfortunately, the strategy didn't work as well as it had previously, in part because audiences largely scoffed at the premise of a suicide-inducing plague being spread by trees. Although The Happening easily beat Lady in the Water's $42 million domestic box office gross, its $65 million was still a letdown compared to Shyamalan's previous track record, and the critical reaction was as harsh as ever.

As a result, Shyamalan would shift completely outside of the horror/suspense genre for his next two movies, $100 million-plus blockbusters that would prove critically and commercially disappointing: the martial arts family film The Last Airbender (2010) and the sci fi actioner After Earth (2013). 

Return to Horror:

Perhaps scarred by his experience with bloated Hollywood mega-productions, Shyamalan returned to what made his career: small-scale horror. 

He had already dipped a toe back into the genre water as writer and producer of 2010's "Satan in an elevator" film , which earned $34 million on a modest $10 million budget and, perhaps just as importantly, earned a solid reception from critics and viewers alike.

Devil was to be the first in a trilogy he was to produce under his Night Chronicles banner, but follow-ups (including a second film called Reincarnate and a third based on an idea for an Unbreakable sequel) never came to fruition.

In 2015, Shyamalan returned behind the camera to direct the pilot episode of the Fox TV series Wayward Pines, a supernatural thriller (which he also produced) that turned out to have distinct horror overtones. The show, about a mysterious town that seems to absorb and brainwash people, earned good ratings for the network and was renewed for a second season. 

The Visit:

2015 was Shyamalan's most critically acclaimed year in over a decade, thanks to not only Wayward Pines, but also arguably the director's most straightforward horror movie to date, . Teaming up with renowned micro-budget horror producer Jason Blum (, , , ), Shyamalan made the risky decision to jump into the well-worn "found footage" style of filmmaking for the story of two children who discover dark secrets while staying with their grandparents, but the risk paid off when he parlayed a $5 million budget into a $65 million tally in the US. The partnership was so successful, Blum signed on to produce Shyamalan-penned script for a supernatural thriller called Split, due in early 2017.

Despite some commercial bumps in the road and a segment of the population that has written him off as the gimmicky "twist guy," M. Night Shyamalan continues to be a creative force, delivering genre thrills not only as a director, but -- unlike most filmmakers today -- also as writer on every film he's helmed.

Select Horror/Suspense Filmography:

  • Split (2017)
  • The Visit (2015)
  • Wayward Pines (2015) [TV Series Director/Producer]
  • Devil (2010) [Writer/Producer]
  • The Happening (2008)
  • Lady in the Water (2006)
  • The Village (2004)
  • Signs (2002)
  • Unbreakable (2000)
  • The Sixth Sense (1999)