After several years in the cultural wilderness, reduced to a mere punchline after a series of critically acclaimed films, M. Night Shyamalan has his groove back. Following a hot streak of critically acclaimed and commercially successful horror-dramas, including the iconic The Sixth Sense, which landed him several Oscar nominations, Shyamalan became a victim of his own success, with Lady in the Water being slammed in the press, his adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender receiving hatred from fans and critics alike, and his first attempt at a pseudo-comeback, Devil, eliciting more laughs than scares. That all changed when he partnered up with indie horror studio Blumhouse Productions, who are on something of a roll themselves thanks to Shyamalan’s success and that of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Shyamalan’s The Visit brought the film-maker back to his low-budget roots, and therein he found the perfect opportunity to show audiences just how good he could be.
Split, his most recent film, cemented his return to form and reminded us all that he could still deliver a twist like nobody else. The horror, starring James McAvoy and Anna Taylor-Joy, grossed a staggering $274m worldwide on a budget of $9m, then unleashed the surprise that the story of Kevin, a man with dissociative personality disorder, took place in the same world as Shyamalan's earlier film, Unbreakable. Now, the director has announced that his latest film Glass will be the third installment in the Unbreakable-Split series, suggesting that invincible hero David Dunn (Bruce Willis) will face off against Kevin in the ultimate battle. Shyamalan tweeted that this trilogy was always his intention, and now with Blumhouse supporting him every step of the way, he has his own shared universe.
It certainly opens up a cavern of possibilities for the director and studio, the latter of whom have done well from franchises like The Purge. Superhero movies are the foundations of the industry right now, and the auteur has his own low-key, decidedly grungy take to offer audiences amidst the multi-million dollar CGI sagas. With these films making incredible profits for director and studio alike, will the pair want to finish the series with the classic trilogy mold, or will David’s heroic journey venture into more movies?
While the shared universe model is the coveted mold for contemporary studios, it’s a trend that has its roots in the golden age of cinema. The Universal Monster movies frequently crossed over with one another. Frankenstein met the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein saw the monster meet up with the Wolf Man, Dracula and a familiar looking Hunchback, while Abbott and Costello had shenanigans with them all. More recently, Freddie faced off against Jason, and Alien took on Predator twice. For fans, there’s a giddy appeal in such team-ups, battles, and cross-overs, as iconic characters meet and sparks fly.
David Dunn and Kevin Wendell Crumb aren’t exactly iconic, although both characters and the films they starred in were an excellent display of Shyamalan’s own sensibilities, particularly his fun with genre mash-ups and use of superhero iconography. There’s so much that could be done with both characters and the rich, detailed world he’s created. Perhaps there’s a further arc for Kevin that leads to his redemption, or he teams up with David to take on Mr. Glass himself (Samuel L Jackson), whose presence seems all but guaranteed given the third film’s title. Who are the other superpowered people in this world, and will we ever see them? Shyamalan has never been afraid of pushing the limits of the horror and thriller genre, plus his comedic timing is far better than many give him credit for, so why not play around with that more?
Shyamalan has also worked with some exceptional actors over the years - Deanna Dunagan, Kathryn Hahn, Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, Adrien Brody – all of whom would have the time of their lives in a Shyamalan-helmed superhero universe (indeed, Phoenix was the original choice for Kevin until scheduling conflicts led to McAvoy joining the film). It’s clear that Blumhouse are keen to keep Shyamalan on board in his revived age of low-budget genre work, and they do love a good franchise investment.
Of course, the prospect of yet another shared universe would prove exhausting to some. It does feel like everything nowadays has to be sequel bait or a set-up for a shared universe, which leaves some of us yearning for the days of stand-alone movies. A side-effect of a seemingly endless parade of films in the same universe, with actors in iron-clad contract for multiple films, is that the thrill dies off for viewers. How can there be a real sense of danger in the world if you know everyone’s going to survive for another couple of films? Shyamalan has prided himself on ensuring his audiences expect the unexpected, and after a few years of struggling with those expectations, he’s back on top form, so perhaps an extension of the Unbreakable trilogy would just be a step too far for him. There is something to be said for a trilogy with a satisfying and definitive conclusion.
It’s also true that Blumhouse would probably prefer to invest further in original material as they are one of the few indie studios doing so with a specific genre focus. Jordan Peele broke the bank with Get Out and has talked about his desire to do more “social thrillers”, moving on from what must be the tantalizing prospect of making a sequel many fans are crying out for. Then again, The Purge is coming out with a fourth movie next year, so is Insidious, and Creep is getting a sequel. Horror is practically built for long-running series, and they’re an excellent investment for an indie studio who can make massive profits from small budgets.
The key is striking that balance – mine the material for all it’s worth but ensure audiences have fresh stories to turn to before they get bored. So far, Shyamalan has made the studio over $370m from just two films, and it’s produced some of the director’s best work in years. This is a partnership the duo are in for the long haul, and while further adventures within the world of Unbreakable and Split would be fascinating, let’s hope that neither lose their zeal for original genre cinema.