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SYFY WIRE Knock at the Cabin

Every M. Night Shyamalan movie ranked, from 'Knock at the Cabin' to 'After Earth'

Is Knock at the Cabin better than After Earth? Yes, yes it is.

By Benjamin Bullard
Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999); Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable (2000); Knock At The Cabin (2023); The Village (2004)

M. Night Shyamalan's recently-released horror thriller Knock at the Cabin arrives on Peacock this Friday, just a week after his bewitchingly wicked Servant series wrapped its fourth and final season at AppleTV+. Not counting the indie-circuit Praying with Anger flick that served as his film-school feature-length debut in 1992, Knock at the Cabin marked Shyamalan’s 14th turn in the major-movie director’s chair, which of course invites the obvious fun question: How do they all stack up?

More than most prolific directors, Shyamalan’s built a body of work that strands a ton of his movies smack in the middle of any ranked-film debate, with little agreement among fans over how to order-sort all but the very best (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) from the very worst (The Happening, The Last Airbender). That means just about every ranked Shyamalan movie list feels like an assortment of hot takes, with longtime fans hotly protesting why a film like The Village might rate above a tightly-paced horror tale like The Visit (or, as opinions vary, vice-versa).

RELATED: M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin cameo was his 'highest degree of difficulty' 

Of course that kind of fan ferment is just what makes a list like this one so fun. Barring a few complete clunkers, it’s genuinely tough to stack most of Shyamalan’s movies atop one another in a neatly structured, sense-making hierarchy. The greatness gap that separates Knock at the Cabin from, say, Wide Awake is super-slight, so it goes without saying that most of the movies here — even if they fall in the lower half — are pretty near and dear to our genre-loving sci-fi, horror, and fantasy-fluttering hearts.

See how your tally compares with ours, while at least agreeing to check out (or rewatch) Knock at the Cabin — a movie that we think holds its own among an M. Night-nurtured pantheon of movie greats. And while you're on Peacock, you can also catch The Happening, The Sixth Sense and The Village there. 

14. The Happening (2008)

It takes conviction to follow an ambitious sci-fi story idea to its conclusion, so it’s at least fair to credit Shyamalan with bringing his typical auteur’s audacity to The Happening. Problem is, it’s an absolute chore to watch. A scolding environmental cautionary tale that layers on the apocalyptic consequences with a heavy hand, it’s the kind of movie that feels like a tritely dramatized story complement to the direst of those edge-of-disaster catastrophe fantasies that populate the wee-hours time slot on cable documentary channels. There are ways to tackle humans’ relationship with nature in science fiction, but The Happening exemplifies precisely how not to go about it.

13. The Last Airbender (2010)

The Last Airbender (2010)

None of Shyamalan’s movie misses elicits as much near-universal derision as The Last Airbender, an oddly conceived (and even more strangely executed) adaptation of its anime-inspired small-screen source material. A talk-y narrative nightmare that strays far from all the essentials that made Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender ‘toon series such a well regarded cult classic, it’s an outlier of a wonky, weird film even among his small handful of big-screen duds. Critics and audiences rarely agree, but they’ve unified around The Last Airbender. It holds the lowest consensus score out of all of Shyamalan’s movies at Rotten Tomatoes.

12. After Earth (2013)

After Earth is the most overtly futuristic of Shyamalan’s sci-fi films, spinning a coming-of-age survival tale against the post-apocalyptic backdrop of an Earth long forsaken by a human population with the technology to take up permanent residence in space. While it’s not a life-changing experience, we think a lot of the critical bombing After Earth has received stems more from big-budget, A-list expectations than from what’s actually on the screen. Teaming real-life father and son stars Will and Jayden Smith (and co-produced by the Fresh Prince himself), it’s a tepidly generic danger trek  — with CGI creature effects to match — across a forbidding planet, complete with a suitably happy ending after oodles of obstruction from both hostile aliens and Earth’s wild fauna. Neither good nor bad, but still kinda disappointing, After Earth promises more star-powered fireworks between its two big-name stars than either generation of Smith — despite the duo’s game acting efforts — ultimately delivers.

11. Old (2021)

Old is best enjoyed without overthinking things: It’s a tense progression from innocuous discomfort to outright fear for its seemingly cursed, rapidly-aging band of island-vacationing characters ... and that’s about all. It’s well-told, watchable, and thoroughly conventional: Some hidden force prevents the motley group’s escape as they realize their life cycle is on a fast-ticking time clock, picking off one after another as they frantically seek ways to break free from a numinously omnipotent threat. The discovery of what’s really causing all the crinkly skin and accelerated pre-teen development isn’t the stuff of rug-pulling Shyamalan plot twists; it’s simply a genre-conforming evil that newcomers won’t have too much trouble guessing. That’s fine, though, because Old at least moves through its predictable horror paces in a way that won’t leave you frustrated for answers.

10. Wide Awake (1998)

Thanks to a muddled promotional effort and an extended delay in its release, Wide Awake never reached a vast audience. It’s a shame, too, because the movie, coming just before The Sixth Sense in Shyamalan’s early career, puts some of his biggest recurring thematic preoccupations on pure and easy-to-read display. An intimately sweet and family-friendly tale of a young boy’s earnest search to find God, Wide Awake takes a head-on approach to how people choose to process their personal tragedies, sending its compelling young star (Joseph Cross) on an inward journey to make big-picture sense of the death of his beloved grandfather (the late, great Robert Loggia). There’s even a twist, of sorts, at the end, though the stakes here are intentionally benign and scaled down from the heart-pounding finales of later Shyamalan films that torment their characters as they search for meaning.

9. Glass (2019)

Glass served as the final movie in Shyamalan’s Unbreakable superhero trilogy, and while it’s a fine way to spend a couple of hours, there’s something less than satisfying about the film’s inevitable move of finally laying all its story cards on the table. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) returns from the first film to at last set strength against strength (or so it seems) in a bid to take down James McAvoy’s “Beast” villain, and though the conflict definitely lives up to its billing, Glass suffers from the same kind of impossible expectations that beset so many long-awaited film finales: By now, we’ve gotten to know these characters and what drives them, and watching it all play out feels like a dutiful race toward a promised finish line; one with an emotional payoff that’s more familiar than fresh.

8. Lady in the Water (2006)

Count Lady in the Water among Shyamalan’s smaller, more muted fantasy thrillers; one that unfolds almost like a stage play with a tight and talented cast (Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban) who confine most of the action to the movie’s apartment complex setting. As Shyamalan’s current Servant series at Apple TV+ shows, though, there’s plenty of personal drama that can still play out even within a closely-defined footprint, and the movie’s slow-burn revelation that there’s tons of overlap between fairy tales and mundane reality expands the boundaries of Shyamalan’s eternal on-screen fascination with characters who kick against — or relent to — the capital-“B” concept of belief.

7. The Visit (2015)

Can you ever really know your family? Found-footage horror freakout The Visit dangles that question with a deranged twist midway through its compact 94-minute runtime, and in true Shyamalan fashion, turns the riddle on its head by bringing its trapped and frightened child siblings closer together. Told from the point of view of two kids who think they’ve located their long-lost grandparents (helped by a mom, played by WandaVision’s Kathryn Hahn, who’s all too happy to whisk them off for an unaccompanied farmhouse visit), Shyamalan’s Hansel-and-Gretel story setup leans heavily on the children’s resourcefulness — and a happy dose of well-placed family loyalty — to close ranks around the things that matter most to this endearing single-parent trio ... all while escaping the clutches of the creepiest big-screen elderly couple this side of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

6. Split (2016)

In the connected cinematic story-verse trilogy first launched by Unbreakable, each film comes with its own distinct flavor. Falling between Unbreakable and Glass, Split comes the closest to a full-on study in character — or, if we’re keeping score, in 23 of them. That’s the number of identities all bound up inside the singularly fractured mind of its split-personality villain, played with tremendous range and chilling effectiveness by James McAvoy. Less high-concept and more pure thrill ride than the two connected movies that bookend it, Split succeeds because Shyamalan never lets the hostage-crisis story take its foot off the gas ... and because of McAvoy’s “Beast” of a frightening performance.

5. The Village (2004)

The Village (2004)

The Village is one of Shyamalan’s most divisive films, fielding strongly polarized responses that leave little middle ground for measured takes. Count us among its camp of admirers, then, because it conjures up a chillingly immersive horror tone that, if we’re being honest, could sustain an audience through almost any off-the-shelf story. The story here is deceptively simple, with the sage elders of an idyllic, pre-modern community warning its straight-laced conformist residents away from the supernatural perils of venturing beyond the walls. The discovery of what actually awaits on the other side rates as a classic Shyamalan plot twist — so classic, in fact, that many critics and audiences felt cheated by their own expectations. Too bad for them: The Village is meant to unfold like an innocent fable, and its earnest, cherish-what-you-love message slices through any cynicism on the strength of incredibly pure performances from Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, and the rest of the film’s killer cast.

4. Knock at the Cabin (2023)

Shyamalan’s latest apocalyptic horror show plays havoc with concepts of sacrifice and reluctant savior-ism, throwing impossible choices at its characters as they’re forced to decide between the intimate and the epic ... and quick, before someone gets killed. A tweak on some of the big ideas Shyamalan has explored before that tosses in some unexpected new thematic twists of its own, Knock at the Cabin succeeds on the strength of a standout cast (Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird and more), all of whom elevate the film’s cleverly creepy what-if plot proposition into an elegantly crafted doomsday tale.

3. Signs (2002)

Signs (2002)

A minister whose faith evaporates in the wake of tragedy. A loving family bereft of its emotional anchor and distanced from itself. A string of throwaway coincidences, missed-connection exchanges, and seemingly-meaningless personal tics. Oh — and a hostile alien invasion in the crop-circled fields that surround the modest rural farmstead they all call home. With incredible performances from Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin and a delightful young Abigail Breslin, Signs blends all those strange ingredients and more to tell one of the most optimistic and affirmative stories in all of science fiction. Like the best of Shyamalan’s films, you’ll be cheering through tears by the time all the movie’s dangling puzzle pieces finally coalesce into a devastatingly satisfying whole. Swing away, Merrill ... swing away.

2. Unbreakable (2000)

Bruce Willis in Unbreakable (2000)

Like Signs, there’s a question of belief at the heart of Unbreakable, an exemplar of Shyamalan’s penchant for aiming straight for the stars with the kind of big ideas that take few cues from whatever transitory thought trends the rest of the movie-making world might be following. Stars Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis dance from opposite vantages around the child-like notion that superheroes with superpowers are real — and the film’s final settlement of their conflicting points of view rates as one of the cleverest late-game plot adjustments in the director’s rich and sprawling canon.

1. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999)

Landing in 1999, The Sixth Sense created a pop culture phenomenon for contemporary moviegoers with a twist that spread like word-of-mouth wildfire. But riveting performances from Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, and Donnie Wahlberg anchored the rarest of chilling suspense stories: The kind that manages to scare the daylights out of you while reconciling a pair of poignant, grief-bound tragedies that believably, incisively, and — yes, tear-jerkingly — cut straight to the heart.

The Sixth Sense arrived one year before Christopher Nolan’s mainstream moviemaking breakthrough with Memento, and like that film, reaching the mind-bending ending meant heading right back through the turnstiles to immediately view everything with fresh eyes informed by the rug-pulling final curve ball. But unlike Memento, The Sixth Sense didn’t just compel viewers back to their seats on the strength of its brain-teasing story alone. It made people genuinely care about its wounded, damaged characters ... and offered optimism that no hopeless human basket case — perhaps even in death — is ever too far gone.

Knock at the Cabin, The Happening, The Sixth Sense, and The Village are all streaming now on Peacock.