Oh M. Night Shyamalan! You were meant to be Hollywood’s golden boy after a few short films, and now you’re… existing. Let’s be real here, while M. Night Shyamalan’s name has been dragged through the mud multiple times, he’s not THAT bad. I mean, he can be really bad. Laughably bad at times, but I think nearly everyone can give the man credit for one thing: M. Night Shyamalan reinvigorated the idea of twist endings.
Yes, the classic twist. You’re watching a movie and just when you think you understand what’s happening, a twist comes right out of nowhere and upends your entire understanding of the plot. If you were to ask me what a twist was, I would say that a twist is a plot device that, when used well, adds an extra layer of depth to a film and encourages repeat viewings. Twists go beyond mystery thrillers like Knives Out, where the entire point of the movie is to answer a central question. Clues are laid out but you expect there to be clues. You don’t expect clues and developments that recontextualize earlier scenes and moments in a normal Hollywood movie. I can think of many excellent twists in cinema over the past decade, and I personally believe that Shyamalan, for a time, was the torchbearer for this plot device.
The thing with his movies, however, is that he keeps doing it. You expect there to be a twist in every one of his films, so it lessens its inevitable revelation if you’re expecting it. If you know a jump scare is coming then you’re not going to be scared by it. You may get startled, but you’ll move on from it. When Shyamalan keeps putting twists in his movies, they’re no longer shocking or surprising. They’re boring.
So in honor of his latest film, Old, being a fairly decent success both critically and commercially, I thought it would be fun to look back at all of his movies and rank his iconic twists from worst to best. Not every single one of his movies includes a twist in them unless you want to count Avatar: The Last Airbender’s twist being that a beloved property was butchered beyond recognition, so this list will only be comprised of the ten movies that he directed that contain clear, deliberate twists in them. Needless to say, there will be spoilers for all of his movies here, so read on only if you’re a huge Shyamalan fan or if you just don’t care about being spoiled. You have been warned.
10) Signs (2002)
The Premise: Mel Gibson has lost faith in God (oh, if only) after an endless stream of miserable events and discovers crop circles in his fields, signaling an alien invasion.
The Twist: The aliens are weak to water.
Does it Work?: Not in the slightest.
Why?: You have aliens… who are weak to water… invade a planet… made of over 75% water… that’s moronic.
Twist Rating: 1/10
9) The Happening (2008)
The Premise: People are suddenly committing mass suicides from what many believe to be a biological weapon, and it’s up to Mark Wahlberg to save his wife and his friend’s daughter.
The Twist: Plants made the toxin that’s causing people to kill themselves. You better believe it, the trees are fighting back!
Does it Work?: Nope. Not even close.
Why?: I will give credit to The Happening for being just stupid enough to make this twist enjoyable. It’s still awful, but just making me say the phrase “plants are causing people to commit mass suicide” is at least more entertaining than watching a group of aliens invade a planet mostly made up of their one weakness. It is the definition of a laughable Shyamalan twist.
Twist Rating: 2/10
8) Glass (2019)
The Premise: The cast of Unbreakable and Split are captured and put into a mental institute that is trying to “cure them” of the delusions that they have superpowers.
The Twist: The mental institute is actually a clandestine organization trying to erase all superhumans and prevent anyone from learning about their existence.
Does it Work?: Not really.
Why?: Glass was a disappointment in a lot of ways, but the reveal that the mental institute that David, Kevin, and Elijah were in was actually evil was a pretty obvious one. When the inevitable reveal happens, it lands with a thud and it isn’t entirely clear what’s even happening at this point. I did appreciate the minor twist that Elijah was also responsible for killing Kevin’s dad, sending him on the path to become the Beast, but it’s overshadowed by the secret organization doing bland and shady manipulations.
Twist Rating: 4/10
7) Lady in the Water (2006)
The Premise: Alright, bear with me. A magical mermaid creature is on the run from grass werewolves and she escapes to an apartment complex in order to find a writer who will save the world, but she gets injured by the wolves and now in order to heal her, the residents of the apartment complex need to figure out who are the specific roles to heal her or else she’ll die.
The Twist: All of the roles that everyone assumed they had were wrong!
Does it Work?: No…? Maybe…? I have no idea…
Why?: Lady in the Water is a terrible movie and it’s almost impregnable to watch. There’s so much nonsense inside of this movie that tries to take itself incredibly seriously, but it’s so serious it’s hilarious. Regardless, the lore and mythology of the world I guess makes sense within the context of the story. So within the confines of this movie, sure, it’s alright, but man is it strange to actually sit through.
Twist Rating: ???/10
6) The Visit (2015)
The Premise: Two teenagers go to see their estranged grandparents for a week.
The Twist: Their grandparents are dead and the two people they’re with are escaped mental patients.
Does it Work?: Yes.
Why?: This is probably the most simple Shyamalan twist, but it’s really effective. The revelation that the people these kids have been spending this week have been violent psychopaths is terrifying in its revelation. It’s basic, but sometimes basic is good.
Twist Rating: 6/10
5) The Village (2004)
The Premise: In the 19th century, a village in Pennsylvania lives in fear of monsters in the woods, but a young woman needs to go into the woods in order to get medicine to heal an injured man.
The Twist: The movie is actually set in the 21st century and the village was founded in a private park with the monsters being the village elders preventing the village’s citizens from learning the truth and keeping them in.
Does it Work?: Yes
Why?: The ultimate revelation about the truth of the village is well built up throughout the movie and completely redefines the movie. At first, you think it’s a period piece, but as a good twist should do, it redefines nearly everything about the movie. The fact that the truth is still kept undisclosed to the villagers by the end adds an air of tragedy to the proceedings, making the ending almost bittersweet.
Twist Rating: 7/10
4) Old (2021)
The Premise: People are being sent to a beach by a hotel resort that’s causing them to rapidly age and die.
The Twist: The people on the beach all have medical conditions and the hotel is actually a pharmaceutical company running drug tests on the guests by sending them to the beach to test the longevity and efficiency of each drug.
Does it Work?: Yes.
Why?: It actually sounds believable and kind of clever for this company. Let’s not beat around the bush here, sending people on a magical aging beach to die is pretty screwed up. However, the practical applications of test drugs on them is an inspired idea that paints a lot of earlier ideas in a different light. The illnesses the adults face, the mixing of physical and mental illness, and the results that arise from it. It’s a smart idea that I have to admit, I did not see coming.
Twist Rating: 7/10
3) Split (2017)
The Premise: Three teenage girls are being held by a man with dissociative identity disorder who is seeking to kill them to bring out a new personality called “The Beast” to change the world.
The Twist: The movie is set in the world of Unbreakable.
Does it Work?: Yes
Why?: The potential that was opened by this Shyamalan twist was tantalizing. Never mind the fact that Glass botched all of it up two years later, the excitement that this movie was going to continue the story of Unbreakable was enough to elevate the movie not as a thriller, but as a supervillain origin story.
Twist Rating: 8/10
2) Unbreakable (2000)
The Premise: David is the sole survivor of a train accident and after meeting Elijah, a man with brittle bone disease who is an expert in comic book knowledge, begins to see himself as a superhero that cannot be broken and tries to use his superhuman abilities for good.
The Twist: Elijah was the one responsible for the train accident and made David into a hero so that he could become David’s arch-enemy.
Does it Work?: Yes
Why?: We spend the entire movie seeing how David and Elijah interact and work with each other and it’s excellent stuff. To see their entire relationship be completely upended and see how Elijah was the one responsible for all of David’s suffering was a wonderful twist and helped establish a unique world full of superheroes that feels grounded yet reverential to comic books.
Twist Rating: 9/10
1) The Sixth Sense (1998)
The Premise: Malcolm is a child psychologist who is trying to help a young child who claims he can see dead people because Malcolm views this case as a chance for him to reconcile with his wife.
The Twist: Malcolm was dead the entire time.
Does it Work?: Yes.
Why?: This was the twist that put Shyamalan on the map. Hell, this was the movie that practically made him. All of the hints were there and yet audiences never suspected that Malcolm was dead all along. It played with our expectations wonderfully and is now the textbook definition of what a twist is. It’s hard to think of any other twist that doesn’t have as much impact as this one that can still surprise unsuspecting audience members.
Twist Rating: 10/10