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PartnersJanuary 7, 2019

All hail the curveball king: Power ranking M. Night Shyamalan’s buzziest plot twists


Ahead of the release of his new film Glass, Alex Casey looked back at the best twists in director M. Night Shyamalan’s back catalogue.

Try as I might, I never seem to see a twist in a movie coming. It doesn’t matter how hard I strain my eyes, how many maths woman calculations I do in my head, or how many local psychics I visit. I will still be shocked every single time by a simple cinematic rug-pull. In hindsight, they always make me feel incredibly stupid. Of course Tyler Durden was inside Edward Norton’s head the whole time in Fight Club. Of course the apes in Planet of the Apes were on Earth the whole time. Of course the Titanic was going to sink – nothing that big should ever be in the ocean. 

But, of all the dizzying twists that modern cinema has thrown my way, there remains one peerless master. A man so twisty he might as well be a Betty Spaghetti doll. A man so willing to betray his audience that he might as well be one of those gummy lollies that looks like an egg but doesn’t taste anything like an egg. His name is M. Night Shyamalan, and he has made a career out of being the puppeteer of the plot twist. The shaman of surprise. The baron of bombshells. The reverend of revelations.

For over 25 years, the writer, director and occasional actor has thrown curveball after curveball into his outrageously fun – often thrilling – popcorn blockbusters. With the release of his latest labyrinthian offering Glass on 17 January, I decided to rank ALL of them.

It should not be a plot twist to tell you at this stage that major, earth-shattering spoilers are afoot. You have been warned.

10) The Signs twist

As someone with a deep-set fear of both corn fields and aliens (thank you, E.T.), nothing is scarier than the sickeningly suspenseful first half of Signs. But as someone with an absolutely unquenchable thirst for gallons of H2O every second of everyday, nothing was more bewildering than the reveal that the vicious alien visitors of Signs can be defeated by… water. M. Night, you’ve absolutely done it again. I will think of you every time I have a drop of the good stuff, and will forever be armed against threatening extra-terrestrial visitors. 

9) The Happening twist

If you thought water was bad, wait till you find out about trees! Shyamalan revealed a strange suspicion of nature in The Happening, a pandemic thriller where people start being driven to mass suicide by what is suspected to be a bioterrorist toxin released into the air. As the world quickly descends into a chaotic dystopia, Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel become part of a small group attempting to survive.

What transpires is a grim road trip where visitors come, go and die with the changing of the wind, with science teacher Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) trying to dissect the airborne mystery.

In a delightfully evil conceit: it turns out it was the trees all along. Not terrorists, or murderers, or psychopaths, but the plant-life of the world rising up and rebelling against the damages of mankind. As the earth sizzles and the ice caps melt, I think we should all consider the events of The Happening as basically a prophecy. Be very nice to your house plant.

8) My bank account twist

Now, this one I haven’t been able to link this directly to Shyamalan yet, but I do find it surprising nonetheless. It appears that every time I open my bank account there is less and less money in it even though I swear I get paid every single week?! Wow, his commitment to the cause really knows no bounds. Truly an auteur of the form. I bow down.

7) The Village twist

Painting a suffocating vision of an isolated, 19th century community who are terrorised by monsters in the surrounding forest known as ‘Those We Don’t Speak Of’, The Village features one of Shyamalan’s most polarising twists. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody and Bryce Dallas Howard in an exceptional breakout role, the curveball comes when it is revealed what lies beyond the ominous woods. Turns out is not a snarling world of monsters at all, but… modern civilisation.

That’s right, the Elders of the town had been pretending to be the monsters to keep everyone away from the outside world. They didn’t need all those gas lamps and bonnets – right around the corner there was velcro, Internet and all the other wonders of modern life.

It was a divisive ending that Roger Ebert called “one step up the ladder of narrative originality from ‘It was all a dream’,” but I think it helps if you watch it less as a horror and more of an examination of power, seclusion and Adrien Brody serving fierce hedgehog realness.

6) The Devil twist

All I’m saying is, if you ever get trapped in an elevator with a group of strangers and you all start dying, one by one, when the lights go out… keep an eye on the dead old lady. She’s probably not actually dead and she’s probably, definitely the actual devil. It’s a technique employed by everyone from Jigsaw in Saw to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, but somehow the dead-person-not-actually-being-dead-and-actually-being-the-murderer gets me every time. Again, I bow down. 

5) The Sci-Fi channel twist

Like our own Peter Jackson punking the hell out of TV1 viewers with his genius prank-umentary Forgotten Silver, Shyamalan also took his trickery to television in 2004. The documentary special The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan claimed that the director had nearly drowned as a child, giving him the supernatural ability to communicate with… dead people. Sound familiar? Anyway, fake news about it popped up all across the internet, thanks to a completely fake publicist named “David Westover” and a fair few $5 million non-disclosure agreements for staff at Sci-Fi. Can’t put a price on a good gag, though.

4) The Stuart Little twist

Here’s something you REALLY didn’t see coming: M. Night Shyamalan wrote smash hit kid’s film Stuart Little. At first glance, you might think it was just a sunny sojourn for a dark mastermind, but I implore you to rewatch the film with knowledge of his involvement in mind. What I’m trying to say here is that I think Stuart Little drowned in the washing machine about halfway through Stuart Little.

The dark truth, maybe

3) The Unbreakable twist

A mere year after they did a huge switcheroo on us in The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis and Shyamalan paired up again in Unbreakable, a superhero film like no other and a crucial part of the pending Glass universe. Willis plays David Dunn, a security guard and family man who miraculously survives a horrific train crash. Waking up in hospital to the news that he was the sole survivor, Dunn discovers he has superhuman abilities including tremendous strength, enhanced speed and extrasensory perception. Honestly, same.

That’s not even the big twist twist! Harnessing his powers with the help of a wheelchair bound comic book enthusiast Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), Dunn tries to balance the mundanities of family life with moonlighting as a vigilante superhero. His fatal flaw is that he is deathly afraid of water which, unlike Signs, isn’t the big twist either. At the end of the film, we find out that Elijah Price is actually a SUPER VILLAIN, and responsible for a series of major attacks including the very derailment that led to Dunn being there.

Hellbent of finding his arch nemesis – a staple character of the comic book genre – turns out that Price (aka Mr Glass) engineered the accident to find the hero to match his villain. It’s a hell of twist in an extremely sophisticated superhero story, one praised by Quentin Tarantino as a “brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology.” Perhaps the most meta-twist of all, viewers at the time had no idea they were watching the origin story of a three part superhero series. Which leads me nicely to the next entry…

2) The Split twist

In an era where everyone is screaming about Marvel and their ‘most ambitious crossover’ becoming a meme in itself, Shyamalan deftly dunked on the entire superhero genre last year with the quiet, unassuming surprise that came at the end of Split. Like everyone else who saw the film without having read any spoiler-y posts just like this one, I thoroughly enjoyed the film as (what I thought was) a pure psychological trip.

Masquerading as a body horror about a man with 23 personalities who kidnaps teenage girls, I thought I was witnessing the twist when James McAvoy morphed into a grotesque, bulging, superhuman cannibal towards the end. I was so smug that my jaw literally dropped to the floor when Unbreakable’s David Dunn appeared in the final shot of the film, a whole 16 years later, confirming that the films were set in the same universe.  

With Willis completely uncredited in the film and the marketing actively misleading us to believe it was a standalone horror, Shyamalan flexed veeeery hard with this one. Pick your brains up off the floor, sheeple, Split was a SEQUEL TO UNBREAKABLE ALL ALONG!!!!! Not only that, but it’s the second in a DECADE-SPANNING TRILOGY, ending in Glass which opens 17 January.

1) The Sixth Sense twist

Iconic. If you’ve been living under a rock (or under a bed if you are a young Mischa Barton ghost) 1999’s The Sixth Sense is a supernatural thriller following a little nipper named Cole Sear (played by Haley Joel Osment) that can, infamously, see dead people. Laden with troubles, as you would be when your life is full of literal ghosts, he becomes the latest case for child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis).

The twist at the end, of course, is that Bruce Willis has actually been dead the whole time. It’s the twist that broke millions of brains across the world, a twist immortalised in popular culture by this Lonely Island song to Scary Movie, to endless memes of varying quality. As Esquire wrote, 15 years after the release of The Sixth Sense, “the ending was shocking without being cheap, unforeseen without feeling deceptive, oddly comforting without seeming banal, and gave closure without looking lazy.”

Although The Sixth Sense is genuinely terrifying and packed with jump scares and creepies and stellar performances, it’s the revelation at the end that I found the most unnerving of all. Because, after all, just as Truman doesn’t know he is in a 24 hour TV show, how do any of us know we’re not actually dead? What if we are all just floating around talking to fellow ghosts, and reading ghost content written on the ghost web?

Hmm, If you’ll excuse me, I urgently need to track down Haley Joel Osment.

This content was created in paid partnership with The Walt Disney Company. Learn more about our partnerships here

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