Justice for M. Night Shyamalan

The Oscar-nominated horror director is one of the most consistently bankable filmmakers. So how did he become a punchline?

Sadaf Ahsan

October 28, 2022

Justice for M. Night Shyamalan
Bruce Willis and M. Night Shyamalan

It’s only been six months since Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lost his wife, and he is struggling to keep his rural farm and his family going. His brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a failed minor league baseball player, has come to stay to help him raise his two children. But as mysterious crop circles appear on the family farm, fear and rumors begin to spread. Who is behind the intricate and sprawling signs — and what do they mean? Set to James Newton Howard’s pounding score, building suspense with each clue, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) kept audiences in butt-clenching suspense for one-and-a-half hours in a way that only M. Night Shyamalan can. 

At the time of its release, if you’d seen one sci-fi horror film, you’d seen them all. Think 1997’s Event Horizon or 1998’s The Faculty. They weren’t bad, but they primarily revolved around flying saucers and the terror of abduction. With writer-director Shyamalan, however, Signs added an emotional layer focused on the people and their experiences rather than the unknown alien enemy. That meant the big bad didn’t have to be some CGI concoction or even all that scary. It just had to be something you felt and feared. His distinct style initially led many to label him “the next Hitchcock,” after the 1950s director who revolutionized the genre in much the same way with films such as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). Both have given the horror genre a much-needed facelift by opting for subtle scares and focusing instead on interpersonal dynamics.

By the time Signs came out, Shyamalan was already a household name. His Oscar-nominated hit The Sixth Sense (1999) had broken box office records with a story that similarly flipped viewer expectations, reintroducing The Twist years after Hitchcock had. Eventually, that very schtick would go from Shyamalan’s calling card to what made him a punchline as his films became increasingly grandiose, tiring audiences. As studios closed their doors to his scary ideas, he pivoted to other genres, from children’s films to fantasy adventure, and the rave reviews turned to rants. After opting for smaller budgets and tighter stories in recent years, he’s begun to experience something of a renaissance. As it turns out, there’s no burying M. Night Shyamalan, a director who may be divisive but — you might be surprised to learn — has always been bankable.