M. Night Shyamalan’s career is, in a lot of ways, riddled with inconsistencies. Most people would tell you that the best films he made are early in his career, even with his recent comeback in working with Blumhouse Productions. But even when the quality of his films is low, you can always find some recognizable elements in his work. To rank the best scenes in Shyamalan’s career, though, you do have to look primarily (but not entirely) at his early work.
In honor of his new film, Glass, which itself marries Shyamalan’s early and more recent films, let’s rank the 10 best scenes in the man’s career.
10. The opening scene, The Happening
Let’s be clear about something at the get-go. The Happening is not a good movie. Not every film on this list is, by and large, successful. But the scenes here do work, and the opening of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 horror film is indeed quite effective. Before we know exactly what’s going on here, the sight depicted in the first two minutes of the film, set in Central Park, is pretty unnerving. It’s simple enough: two young women (one of whom, Kristin Connolly, would go onto co-star in The Cabin in the Woods) are sitting on a bench, and Connolly notices people freezing in place, walking backwards, and clawing at themselves. And then her friend freezes, grabs the metallic pin in her hair and stabs herself in the neck inexplicably. The rest of this movie is nightmarish in the wrong ways, but The Happening began quite strongly.
9. The Dunn reveal, Split
Watching Split months after its release (as was the case for me) meant that you spent a whole lot of time waiting, as The Simpsons would say, to get to the fireworks factory. Yes, sure, this was a movie in which James McAvoy plays a man with many different personalities who has kidnapped three helpless young women. And yes, sure, it’s a decent enough thriller for its running time. But after its release, I knew that Split was really a backdoor sequel to Unbreakable, making the last scene memorably goofy. (I will note here: Glass does not make this list. The Happening did. I’ve seen Glass. There’s a reason it’s not on the list.) After McAvoy’s character literally unleashes his inner Beast, a genuinely supervillainous personality, it makes the local news at a nearby diner, where one patron notes that it sounds a bit like that one guy who caused some disasters and had a special name. What was that name again? “Mr. Glass,” intones none other than an older, grizzled David Dunn (Bruce Willis). It’s not the greatest surprise in Shyamalan’s filmography, but still packs a punch.
8. Ivy faces off against the monster, The Village
Unlike some of my critical brethren, I’m not going to make a strong case for The Village being a secret masterpiece. Though Shyamalan was arguably making a commentary on the state of the nation in the early 2000s in his grim-faced thriller—which features a twist ending that reveals the film is taking place in the present, not a century earlier—it’s the first sign of trouble in his filmography. That said, when you get a cinematographer like Roger Deakins, a qualified cast, and a director like Shyamalan involved, there’s one or two good scenes. To wit: when our blind protagonist, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), leaves the village in search of medicine for her beloved, she’s informed that the monsters attacking the village aren’t real — they’re just members of the community pretending. But then, when Ivy’s at the outskirts of the village, and her departure is known throughout the village, she’s beset upon by what appears to be one of the monsters, for real. The subsequent attack, and reveal of what’s really going on, is the single moment when the film achieves an unnerving sense of fright.
7. The alien attacks in the basement, Signs
Sometimes, you just have to give it up for being scared out of your mind. While I’m a fairly easy scare in the movie theaters, I rarely have the reaction I had in the second half of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Once aliens have arrived at the farmhouse of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) and his family, they hide in the basement to hopefully avoid being caught for nefarious purposes. While in the basement, though, things get out of hand and Graham loses control of a flashlight. Once he gets it back and checks on his asthmatic son, Graham is startled to see that one of the aliens has climbed in the vent behind the boy and is trying to grab hold of him. This reveal, no joke, made me jump maybe two feet in the theater. One of the great, unexpected jump scares in modern cinema.
6. The train ride, Unbreakable
The Sixth Sense managed to be a massive hit in the summer of 1999; while a genre piece, it was also slowly paced, with long takes in which characters had conversations of great portent. Unbreakable, in its opening moments (as the credits roll), makes clear that Shyamalan’s doubling down on what worked for him the year before. What happens in the scene is simple enough: married man David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is heading home on a train bound for Philadelphia, encounters an attractive sports agent with whom he fails to flirt, and then sits back before the train derails offscreen. But Shyamalan and cinematographer Eduardo Serra combine for only a couple of very long takes, in which the camera finds new angles to depict the dour David, moving back and forth long past when you might expect a cut.
5. Hide and seek, The Visit
People may tell you that Split heralded the return of M. Night Shyamalan to making good movies, but I am here to tell you that his return occurred two years earlier. The Visit is as stripped-down as Shyamalan gets; it’s a super-low-budget found-footage horror film in which two teenagers realize that their grandparents may not be quite the charming little old couple they appear to be. The found-footage element is at its best during the film’s many scary setpieces, and the true highlight is when the two kids play hide-and-seek directly underneath the floorboards of their grandparents’ farmhouse. All is well (and both kids are filming each other, too) until their grandma decides to play in a very creepy fashion. Shyamalan’s use of the found-footage style works best here, as we’re trapped in the frame, waiting for Grandma to strike again.
4. “I see dead people”, The Sixth Sense
It remains a shame that Haley Joel Osment didn’t get the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in The Sixth Sense. In something of an impossible role, as a little boy who would love to have a normal life if he didn’t keep seeing ghosts everywhere, he manages to avoid being precocious from beginning to end. But Osment’s high point is a scene that entered the realm of cinematic iconography almost instantly thanks to one line of dialogue: “I see dead people.” It takes almost an hour to get to this point, after which young Cole Sear explains to his caring psychologist why he’s so quiet and removed and awkward. Osment’s performance, coupled with the building tension, make what is ostensibly a two-hander conversation genuinely memorable.
3. Graham goes into his neighbor’s kitchen, Signs
Considering…y’know, the last 15 years or so, it’s maybe a little harder now to buy Mel Gibson as being an extremely pious and nonviolent man. (Maybe you can still buy his piety thanks to films like The Passion of the Christ. But….nonviolent?) But in Signs, Gibson fully embodies fallen Reverend Graham Hess, who’s furious at the Lord for having lost his wife in a car accident before the events of the film. Graham is pushed to a breaking point when aliens descend upon the planet, and he heads over to the house of the man who caused the fatal accident after a mysterious phone call. Graham goes into the man’s kitchen, after learning an alien’s been trapped there, and struggles with being confrontational with this extraterrestrial. That is, until he bends down on the ground, aiming to use a knife’s blade as a reflective surface to see the alien, and the alien grabs for him. It’s another excellent jump scare in one of Shyamalan’s best films.
2. David Dunn embraces his identity, Unbreakable
In the same way that Split reveals itself to be much more than a low-budget horror film in its very last scene, Unbreakable has more on its mind than being just a character study of a quiet man who left behind a career as a football player to be with his wife. Though the very last scene reveals that David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has a true enemy in comic-book art-gallery owner Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the climax comes when David embraces his extreme strength and walks through a subway station to see which random person’s darkest sin he needs to avenge. When he finds a janitor who’s locked up two young girls in their own home, he follows the man and eventually triumphs after nearly drowning in a darkened pool in a rainstorm. The sequence is mostly dialogue-free, but Shyamalan’s ability to build a suffuse, moody atmosphere makes this a standout.
1. The final reveal, The Sixth Sense
You could argue that M. Night Shyamalan’s career was cemented as soon as Haley Joel Osment whispered that he saw dead people. But the impact of The Sixth Sense, and its inherent rewatchability, would not have been nearly so great if its ending wasn’t so darkly satisfying. (With the caveat that it’s been 20 years, and it’s the goddamn Sixth Sense, here’s your spoiler warning.) All has been resolved for young Cole Sear — he’s admitted his special abilities to his mother, and they’ve had a tearful reunion — which means Malcolm Crowe’s work may be done. That is, until he heads back home and realizes what all the well-placed clues (the basement doorknob that won’t budge, his wife’s emotional fragility, her willingness to get involved with another man, etc.) have been pointing him to since the beginning: he didn’t survive the gunshot wound inflicted on him by a past patient in the prologue. Yes, Malcolm has been dead the whole time. Bruce Willis plays this reveal with the appropriate amount of heartbreak, and it’s one of the rare times when a filmmaker flashing back to events from…y’know, an hour ago actually works. It’s one of the few twists that still holds up, thanks to Shyamalan’s now-signature style.
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