Remember When M. Night Shyamalan Pretended To Be Psychic?
This weekend sees the release of the newest M. Night Shyamalan thriller Old about a beach vacation that goes sideways when everyone starts rapidly aging like they drank from the wrong Grail or decided to have children in their thirties. At the very least, it looks like the starkest cinematic examination of the grotesque horrors of aging since the Expendables series.
Shyamalan’s filmography has had more ups and downs than a coked-up kangaroo on a pogo stick, from the early acclaim of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable to the disastrous adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Now Shyamalan is seemingly back in a career upswing, following low-budget horror hits like The Visit and Split, but we can’t help but still be obsessed with one of the oddest chapters of the famed director’s recent past …
The year was 2004, and Shyamalan’s much-anticipated thriller The Village was about to hit theatres. To coincide with the film’s release, the Sci-Fi channel aired The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, which begins as a typical behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of The Village, in which the filmmakers are given “unprecedented access” to the “notoriously secretive” director who doesn’t usually give interviews -- but then it takes a left turn into spookytown when the director uncovers the truth about M. Night Shyamalan …
We learn that he’s basically a superhero, hence his wildly successful film career. Shyamalan’s elementary school teachers claim that he never got sick, not unlike the Bruce Willis character in Unbreakable. And weirdly, photographic and sound equipment malfunctions in his presence -- despite the fact that he regularly appears on-camera in his own movies. The filmmakers eventually discover that Shyamalan actually drowned as a child and was legally dead for like 35 minutes before being resuscitated. Since then, he’s been able to commune with the dead like the little boy in The Sixth Sense.
Of course, all of this was nonsense, and the “documentary” was just a hoax concocted by Shyamalan himself to drum up publicity for a movie that was also, incidentally, about a disappointing hoax. Which is … weird. It’s kind of like if a young Steven Spielberg commissioned a mockumentary alleging that he was a former hunter of great white sharks. Some have pegged this project as the moment when it “all started going wrong” for the director. Is that entirely fair? After all, Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese added a bunch of random lies to their Netflix concert documentary just for the hell of it and received critical acclaim!
While Buried Secrets is arguably just harmless fun, what likely rubbed people the wrong way is just how relentlessly self-aggrandizing it is -- he basically anonymously commissioned a movie that is three hours (including commercials) of people waxing poetically about his mysterious genius, including Deepak Chopra (for some reason), Johnny Depp (for an even harder to discern reason) and a group of teenage groupies who seemingly spend their lives camped out at Shyamalan’s home.
Then there’s the fact that Shyamalan took this gag insanely seriously, making Sci-Fi staff sign $5 million non-disclosure agreements and issuing “blatantly false press releases” from a nonexistent publicist about his displeasure with the expose, which, unsurprisingly, pissed people off. The network had to cop to the ruse before The Village even came out and admitted that they “might have taken the guerilla campaign one step too far.” In retrospect, it may have all been an elaborate ploy to make it seem as though The Sixth Sense was based on a real incident and not, as it seemed, a ‘90s Nickelodeon show
Top Image: Touchstone Pictures