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Crossing Over: M. Night Shyamalan’s “UNBREAKABLE”

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Welcome, FANGORIA Readers, to CROSSING OVER, our newest column that highlights the films, series and content out there outside of horror that is fashioned towards or pays tribute to our beloved genre. By shining a light onto these projects, FANGORIA hopes to open a world of entertainment perfect for fright fans that lies just beyond the borders of the horror community. So without further ado…

In this writer’s eyes, M. Night Shyamalan is a filmmaker who works best when working on an intimate scale. From THE VILLAGE and beyond, Shyamalan worked with progressively bigger stories over the course of his career, each with grander scope and scale, whether it be fantasy realms in LADY IN THE WATER, the whole world with THE HAPPENING, mystical planetary conflicts with THE LAST AIRBENDER and even a futuristic galaxy in AFTER EARTH. And with each of those stores, the filmmaker many deemed to be Hitchcock’s predecessor found weaker reviews, impersonal storytelling and aesthetic-driven visuals. In fact, the only time during this period where Shyamalan earned good will among genre fans was in his producing effort on DEVIL, which returned to the same intimate, suspenseful atmosphere that had become a trademark of the filmmaker.

Now, with WAYWARD PINES and THE VISIT looking to give Shyamalan a long-deserved boost in the right direction, it’s only fitting to revisit the golden era of the filmmaker’s career. While THE SIXTH SENSE and SIGNS both offered some of the scariest, genre-friendly moments in that era, UNBREAKABLE is often the entry ignored by horror hounds due to its emphasis on drama, even if it contains some of the most disturbing and intense material of Shyamalan’s oeuvre. But above all else, horror fans should appreciate the unique puzzlebox quality of UNBREAKABLE, which is paired with Shyamalan’s patient, steady eye and strong, purposeful dialogue to unravel a mystery worthy of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

On one hand, UNBREAKABLE takes one of the most terrifying turns a “realistic” take on a superhero story can take by being very honest about the kind of criminals that would be subject to our world. There are no Jokers, no Ultrons and no Zod causing trouble in this universe; instead, it’s rapists, hate criminals and psychopaths. Even the main villain of the film is portrayed in such a tragic, desperate light that his crimes feel realistically unsettling and far from the cartoonish plots of a traditional arch-nemesis. And in UNBREAKABLE, Shyamalan shows what vigilantes would have to do, between the realistic take on truly tortured victims to the gut-wrenching long take that shows our hero murdering a man before he can inflict monstrous deeds on others.

Then there’s the utter breath-taking feeling of dread that crawls throughout the entirety of UNBREAKABLE; in fact, combined with the mystery at hand, this aura is the closest to Lynchian that Shyamalan has ever been as a filmmaker. Whether it’s David’s post-accident hospital visit, Elijah’s pursuit of the suspected gunman or the infamous kitchen scene, UNBREAKABLE features some of the most genuinely gripping and excruciatingly intense moments of Shyamalan’s career, which is even more impressive considering they never feel out of place with the dramatic throughline of the film. And when David comes face to face with his unique version of “kryptonite” it’s claustrophobic and voyeuristic in an undeniably unsettling way.

But perhaps what fright fans would most appreciate about UNBREAKABLE is how much the film takes the “super” elements out of a superhero story. Instead of a big budget blockbuster with redeemable heroic lead, UNBREAKABLE follows a philandering failed athlete with perpetual survivor’s remorse whose family life is in ruin. Instead of having the power of flight or invisibility, his power is entirely physical, and when he’s choosing his vigilante move, see how he is powerless to crimes already committed. It’s a dark, ugly approach to often sensational subject matter, and one genre fans can attest is likely one of the most disturbing takes as well as a highlight of Shyamalan’s strongest cinematic streak.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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