In 1999, director M. Night Shyamalan stunned the world with a neck-breaking twist in The Sixth Sense, a film ranked among the top 100 movies of all time on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list.
Ever since The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has been a prisoner of that precedent.
Whether Shyamalan himself insists on straining his stories (Lady in the Water, 2006) to include unforeseen revelations, or his audience’s expectations demand such screenwriting sleights of hand, the undeniably gifted director-writer-producer seems to feel obligated to surprise his viewers.
Unfortunately, this storyteller’s hands are often tied by viewers who decide how the story should unfold before hearing how it actually unfolds.
This happened with The Village (2004). No doubt, thanks to its misleading advertising campaign, most moviegoers thought they were going to see a monster movie. But it turns out The Village is a social-psychological thriller about how innocence can be lost through fierce protection of it.
Signs (2002) is frequently criticized for the late and unremarkable appearance of its aliens. But while scrutinizing the extraterrestrial, did we also note that Shyamalan evoked anxiety within us for most of the movie, not with what we saw, but with what we didn’t see? It wouldn’t have mattered how scary the alien looked: Nobody else’s imagination trumps our own.
Critics abound when it comes to complaining about the unconvincing nature of superheroes and their movies. But when Shyamalan realistically explored what it might be like to be a superhero in Unbreakable (2000), the film was labeled by many fans as his worst movie.
Perhaps the best indication of Shyamalan’s talent is a trait common among all great storytellers: the ability to incorporate a story within a story. Consider the little girl who supposedly dies of cancer in The SIxth Sense, but a videotape reveals evidence to the contrary.
Not only is this small story arc a horror story within a horror story, it is also literally a film within a film. Shyamalan has satellite stories, such as this, embedded in all his movies.
So, during this summer’s toasty nights, cool off by revisiting Shyamalan’s chilling films. Notice how he carefully designs his stories to intrigue us, the viewers.
And while watching The Happening this June, don’t try to figure out the ending ahead of time or resist Shyamalan’s direction; instead, relax and be competently carried in the hands of a modern master filmmaker.