From the Delusional & Egotistical Mind of M. Night Shyamalan
by Marco Cerritos
September 17, 2010
The supernatural thriller Devil opens in theaters today and the promotional push has been excessive. TV spots and trailers showcase what appears to be a B-movie good time. The flick is directed by brothers Drew and John Erick Dowdle but judging from the aforementioned promotional campaign you'd never know it. The only name front-and-center is that of the film's producer and master showman: M. Night Shyamalan.
To be fair, Shyamalan is a brand and the Dowdle Brothers are hardly household names - they're primarily known for the unnecessary horror remake Quarantine. But at a time when Shyamalan's reputation is more toxic than ever, is it the best decision to promote a movie based on his name? The truth is Universal (the studio behind the movie) may not have a choice.
It's no secret that M. Night Shyamalan (whose real name is Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan) has been drunk with power for the last several years. The early promise of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable was later questioned with the uneven Signs and The Village (Wide Awake also counts to a certain degree). This finally resulted in the triple feature disaster of Lady in the Water, The Happening and this summer's The Last Airbender. As someone who forgave the third act twists of Signs and The Village, even I couldn't look past these last three films which seemed to be career suicide from a once promising storyteller.
The trouble looks to have started in 1999 with the praise of The Sixth Sense and everyone ready to kiss Shyamalan's ass. His first and previous film Wide Awake had suffered through a troubled production at Miramax so to have his second feature score such accolades was a true breakthrough. It's not hard to imagine that when critics and audiences are hailing you as the second coming of movies, some of that praise might go to your head. Or a lot of it might go to your head in Shyamalan's case, resulting in full creative freedom and nobody questioning your work. Ever. Even if it sucks.
There's no denying the detailed craftsmanship of The Sixth Sense as it proves to be one of the best modern-day horror films. Unbreakable is a slow-burn superhero story that enthralls for 98% of its running time. It's abrupt ending is a distraction but can be argued that it's done on purpose to set up sequels (more on that later). Signs is another exercise in suspense and character building but even the most adamant fan of that film cannot escape its nonsensical ending. After all the Shyamalan hype, this proves to be the first real chink in his armor.
The Village has serious story issues but despite the hate is a strong and atmospheric film. This is also the first time audiences seem to be openly disappointed with a Shyamalan film, especially the ending this time. Lady in the Water was Shyamalan's "bedtime story" and boy did it put people to sleep. From a stuttering Paul Giamatti (Kevin Costner almost played the role) to a confused-looking Bryce Dallas Howard, Shyamalan had finally gone off the deep end and hasn't returned since.
The obvious question is if Shyamalan is so bad why does he keep making movies? The obvious answer is because his movies keep making money. Believe it or not, as terrible as The Happening and The Last Airbender were, they both turned a profit. This plays to the golden rule of Hollywood, quality doesn't matter as long as it makes money. In other words they will stop making them when they stop making money. Kind of like the Saw movies.
Despite the negative tone of this article I'm actually rooting for Shyamalan to get out of his rut. I miss the creative storyteller he used to be and feel he can return to those glory days but not without some tough love first. It's rumored that after The Village's poor reception, Disney (Shyamalan's longtime home at that point) passed on Lady in the Water because they found it too weird and offered creative suggestions. This forced him into a deep depression which resulted in lots of tears and self-doubt (which was chronicled in Michael Bamberger's book The Man Who Heard Voices). If the guy is truly that sensitive and self-delusional over a few notes it's no wonder he thinks he's God's gift to cinema.
I feel like as an audience member I'm suffering from battered wife syndrome. Shyamalan keeps kicking my ass with bad movies and I keep telling myself he'll return to form with the next one. Except he doesn't and kicks my ass even harder. The one card he could play that would get fans excited for an M. Night Shyamalan film again would be a sequel to Unbreakable. But what does he do? He announces that he's not only developing an indirect sequel to Unbreakable, but he's also not directing it either. That's a double slap in the face.
This brings us full circle to Devil, a movie that Shyamalan did not write or direct. It's the first project in the vainly titled series The Night Chronicles, a set of three films that are inspired by Shyamalan's own ideas. So when you see trailers touting Devil from "the mind of M. Night Shyamalan", just remember that for better or worse it's not entirely his film.
I feel this bears repeating because most people are confused and feel Devil IS written and directed by Shymalan. It's a piece of misdirection that Tim Burton used to his advantage with The Nightmare Before Christmas. To this day, 98% of people outside the film community I've spoken to about Nightmare believe Burton is the true director, not Henry Selick. I'm not comparing Shyamalan to Burton or the Dowdle Brothers to Selick but it just goes to show you how brands can sometimes help and hurt your film at the same time.
As you're reading this, Devil will be opening in theaters nationwide and the advance word-of-mouth is positive. There were no advanced screenings for press but that's par for the course these days when it comes to genre film. If Devil turns out to be successful (its small budget almost guarantees that it will), here's hoping Manoj Shyamalan is able to take some time off and find some humility. It's not a good sign when you're a national joke people are actively rooting for your demise. Then again his ultimate twist could be that he was dead the whole time.
Follow me on Twitter at @bigdumbmale - more film commentary on FS.net coming soon!