The Directors: M. Night Shyamalan, The Lighter Side of Horror

M. Night Shyamalan has always been on the light side of the horror genre. With Split he has crossed over into new territory, but keeping his feet well within Hitchcock’s realm of influence.

There’s a fine line between horror and suspense. More often than not the line is crossed and becomes blurry. Alfred Hitchcock masterfully blurred the line in Psycho and The Birds. Wide Awake, Shyamalan’s first studio movie, went largely ignored by the public. Shyamalan didn’t remain in obscurity for long. Upon the release of his second movie critics hailed Shyamalan as the second coming of Hitchcock. For awhile Shyamalan managed to blur the line too. As they say, “What goes up must come down.”

You should be warned from this point forward there are SPOILERS.

Cole Sear admits to seeing dead people in The Sixth Sense
“I see dead people”

The Sixth Sense was Shyamalan’s first box office hit. Bugeted at around forty million dollars the movie would end up grossing more than six hundred million dollars. The studio smartly marketed the movie. People were asked not to give away the ending. The studio knew ticket sales would dwindle once the secret was out. In a pre-social media world the marketing worked. People were shocked and surprised at the ending even after the movie had been out for weeks.

The Sixth Sense was a well crafted, well acted movie. Shyamalan built a story of a troubled boy, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who bonds with a troubled child psychologist,  Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) over Cole’s unique ability to see dead people. The two share the journey of Cole coming to grips with his ability and Malcolm accepting his fate.

Bruce Willis as Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense

Is it a horror movie? Yes. Cole is tormented, or so it seems to him, by dead people. Malcolm is well…you know. Is it a drama? There’s definitely dramatic elements in the movie. The divide between Malcolm and his wife, Anna, is explored in some very touching moments. Toni Collette was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Cole’s mother who struggles to understand her son. Is it a suspense movie? There are plenty of suspenseful moments in the movie to qualify.

Shyamalan brilliantly blended horror, drama, and suspense elements in such a way we were distracted from what was staring us right in the face. Unfortunately, once the twist ending is revealed there’s little reason to watch the movie a second time. Some people will go back to try and pick up the clues they missed the first time. The clues are there, you just have to look.

Cole and Malcolm in The Sixth Sense
A boy and his ghost

Shyamalan followed up The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable. Unbreakable was released well before the explosion of comic book movies. It’s a comic book movie only in the fact that David Dunn, played by Bruce Willis, has exceptional strength, he has never been sick or hurt in his life, and can see someone’s future simply by touching them. There’s no flashy costumes. No over the top specially FX. No connected movie universe.

Unbreakable not only explores David’s powers, but the dysfunction within the Dunn family. That dysfunction is further exaborated when Dunn meets Elijah Price. Price, aka Mr. Glass, convinces Dunn he’s more than just a security guard. Dunn’s son is on board the moment he hears Price’s story. What kid wouldn’t be excited their father is a bonafide super hero?

Bruce Willis as David Dunn in Unbreakable

Unbreakable isn’t a horror movie. However, it’s darker in tone than most of the comic book movies that would follow. It’s also a slow movie and at times seems to drag. When it doesn’t seem like it can drag on any more the movie abruptly ends. The movie leaves us with an ending that feels more like an ending from an episode of Law and Order than a Shyamalan ending.

Samuel L Jackson as Mr.Glass in Unbreakable

Shyamalan’s films are often studies of broken families. Signs is no exception. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a reverend who lost his faith after the death of wife. Hess lives on a farm with his brother, son, and daughter. Strange things start happening at the start of the movie and they continue until the end.

Signs has more horror and suspense elements than Unbreakable. It’s also an alien invasion movie. More importantly, Signs was the movie that most divided fans and sent Shyamalan’s  stock plummeting. People were tiring of Shaymalan’s twist endings. It reflected in both fans’s and critics’s reviews of the movie.

Mel Gibson, as Reverend Graham, confronts his family in Signs

Shyamalan’s next three films were the last three he would both write and direct for quite some time. The Village, a Wicker Man style horror movie with a creepy atmosphere that runs throughout the movie, was the only one to make its money back. People didn’t buy into Shyamaln’s fairy tale, Lady in the Water, and The Happening, a pro-environment movie about as subtle as a fart in church, fell flat from the start. The Village, Lady in The Water, and The Happening were all considered failures at the box office.

Shyamalan’s next two movies were clearly not in his wheelhouse. Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and After Earth were big budget flops. It wouldn’t fair to place all the blame of After Earth‘s failure at Shyamalan’s feet. The story was conceived by Will Smith and produced by Smith and his wife, Jada Pinket-Smith, as a vehicle for their son. Jaden Smith wasn’t enough to carry the film by himself and Will Smith seemed bored by the movie from the start.

Mark Wahlberg is wondering what's happening in The Happening
Wahlberg’s one expression perfectly sums up The Happening.

Somewhere along the line Shyamalan decided to return to his low budget horror roots. The Visit is a pseudo found footage movie. Becca and Tyler are sent to visit their grandparents. A visit to the grandparents house isn’t odd. Most of us have done it. What’s odd is that there mother never wants to talk to her parents. We’re told at the start of the movie she just started talking to her parents after not having contact with them for years. Sure, this happens. Families fall apart, families reunite. However, she was never interested in talking to her parents to see if her children were behaving? What mother does this? A mother in a horror movie where the hook is that maybe these aren’t her parents. That’s who.

The entire movie is told through Becca and Tyler’s recorded videos. Like other found footage movies everything has to be recorded. The scares are few and far between. It’s too late to introduce the scares after we learn the grandparents are actually escaped mental patients. The false jump scares and shaky cams made the ending less scary then it should have been. In addition to Tyler’s numerous raps, we also get to see a lot of dirty diapers. One is even smeared in Tyler’s face.

Grandma in The Visit eats with her mouth full
Because everyone wants to see someone chew with their mouth full.

It’s unfortunate Shyamalan felt the need to join the found footage wagon. There’s no atmosphere of fear Shyamalan masterfully created in The Village. Even the solid character building of Unbreakable is absent. Audiences didn’t seem to mind. The movie more than made back its five million dollar budget. The Blumhouse produced The Visit was the shot in the arm Shyamalan’s career needed. The success of The Visit was more than enough reason to greenlight Shyamalan’s latest horror movie Split.

The terror in Split starts the moment Dennis, played by James McAvoy, abducts Casey, Marcia, and Claire. Split wouldn’t be a good if it was simply an abduction movie. There are plenty of movies out there revolving around an abduction. What makes Split different is Dennis. Dennis is actually one of 23 different personalities manifested by Kevin Wendell Crumb.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Split

Split is hands down one of McAvoy’s best roles. Roles is the operative word. McAvoy plays Crumb and roughly eight other personalities we meet during the course of the movie. McAvoy makes each performance distinctly different from each other. Patricia is the nice, if somewhat weird, English woman. Hedwig is a nine year old boy who loves Kanye West. Barry is a want-to-be fashion designer with OCD. The odds of McAvoy being nominated, let along winning, for an Oscar are exactly zero.

The other element that sets Split apart from other horror movies are the three girls Dennis abducts. These aren’t the typical female characters in a typical horror movie. They don’t crumble, they don’t cry, and they don’t give up. They all fight in some fashion until the very end. We learn through flashbacks Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch) is just as damaged as Kevin.

James McAvoy as Hedwig, one of 24 different personalities in Split

Split is the smart kind of horror movie we don’t see a lot of today. Shyamalan doesn’t tease us with false jump scares. A false jump scare is when someone, say the gardener, sneaks up behind the babysitter. Creepy, sinister music is playing which signals to us the babysitter is about to meet a bad end. She turns around and….oh, it’s the gardener. These false happen more than once in some movies so by the time the real scare happens we’re not scared. There are no jump scares in Split. It’s a subtle kind of scary and it’s deceptive.

From the beginning to almost the end, Split is a solid horror movie. Shyamalan has smartly set up the premise of the movie through the character of Dr. Karen Fletcher. Fletcher is a specialist in the area of multiple personalities who is also treating Barry and all the other personalities Keven manifests. It’s through her we learn that each personality has its own traits, abilities, and even genetics. We’re not shocked nor do we feel cheated when the Beast arrives to take the girls as “sacred food.”

Abducted but not giving up in Split

Split had the almost perfect ending. Casey is freed from her prison. We’re lead to believe she will confront her abusive uncle. We’re also lead to believe the Beast is hiding inside Kevin ready to come out again at some point. It would have been the perfect lead in to a sequel.

The ending we got was forced and felt fake. In a diner, patrons are eating lunch and watching the news unfold about Casey’s survival and the death of her friends. Out of the blue, and to no one in particular, a lady at the counter blurts out that someone almost seventeen years before was arrested and given a nickname. Who remembers a random event from more then seventeen years ago? Were the events in Unbreakable so remarkable people remembered them seventeen years later?

James McAvoy has become the Beast in Split

It’s setup only to have Bruce Willis appear to tell her the name of the other person was “Mr. Glass.” It was cheap ploy to let viewers know a sequel is coming somewhere down the line. A simple camera pan down the restaurant’s counter stopping on Bruce Willis would have done the trick. Anyone who had seen Unbreakable would know Willis was reprising his role as David Dunn. There’s the interent for anyone else who hadn’t seen Unbreakable to search for Bruce Willis and Dunn, the name on the name tag he’s wearing.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where some directors can’t leave well enough alone. Instead of simply doing a sequel Shyamalan is doing a Split/Unbreakable sequel. Yes, Shyamalan is creating an interconnected universe along the lines of Marvel, Star Wars, and the forth coming Castle Rock series from Amazon set in the Stephen King universe. We’ll wait to hold off and further judgment.

In the meantime, let us know your favorite M. Night Shyamalan movie.