Kristen Cui in Knock at the Cabin

There are few directors with a more divisive reputation than M. Night Shyamalan. After the success of his breakout hit, "The Sixth Sense," Shyamalan was immediately placed atop a pedestal that has cast a shadow over his career ever since. Newsweek boldly declared him "The Next Spielberg" in 2002, thrusting him into an unattainable position he never asked for. M. Night Shyamalan catches a lot of heat from critics and audiences alike, some of it rightfully deserved (I’m looking at you, "The Last Airbender"), but it’s a shame because, for the most part, it is so easy to love his films. When M. Night Shyamalan is on, he’s on, and capable of providing some of the most thrilling, unique, and compelling stories on screen.

While horror was not the first genre Shyamalan directed, it’s the one that has brought him the most success, and arguably, the best films in his oeuvre. His upcoming film, "The Knock at the Cabin," is an apocalyptic thriller starring Ben Aldridge, Jonathan Groff, Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, and Nikki Amuka-Bird, and will also feature a performance that allows Shyamalan to flex his strongest directorial muscles — Kristen Cui, as Aldridge and Groff’s daughter, Wen.

Say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan, but when it comes to directing children in horror movies, no one does it quite like him. Even if the film as a whole receives critical scrutiny, Shyamalan has an absolute gift for bringing out the best possible performance from a young actor. Make your jokes about twist endings all you want, it’s undeniable that the kids in Shyamalan’s horror movies often outshine the seasoned adults sharing a scene.

Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense

Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense

W.C. Fields famously coined the phrase, "never work with children or animals," to which the work of M. Night Shyamalan seems to have heard and responded with, "watch me."

"The Sixth Sense" is the film that put Shyamalan on the map, and it’s also the film that turned Haley Joel Osment into the most recognizable child in a horror film since Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." The now-iconic line "I see dead people" has permeated the pop culture lexicon to the point where people who have never seen the film know the line and what it means. For playing the role of Cole Sear, Osment won a Saturn Award and earned nominations for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award, all before he turned 12.

As much as Bruce Willis and Toni Collette deserve credit for their fantastic performances as the adult figures in "The Sixth Sense," the film is only successful if the audience is on board and captivated by Osment as Cole. The emotional depth, maturity, and commitment shown by Osment are unparalleled, and he delivers a performance that most adults can only dream of matching. With a lesser director, Cole Sear runs the risk of coming off as precocious, or even whiny, but with the directorial vision of Shyamalan at the helm, the film is a masterpiece.

Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin in Signs

Rory Culkin, Joaquin Phoenix, Mel Gibson, and Abigail Breslin in Signs

Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin have both gone on to star in some pretty high-profile projects, but their early-career performances in the film "Signs" remain one of their best. Culkin had his breakthrough role two years prior in the drama "You Can Count on Me," but Abigail Breslin, who would receive a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Academy Awards for "Little Miss Sunshine" four years later at the age of 10, made her feature debut in M. Night Shyamalan’s alien thriller. Culkin and Breslin play Morgan and Bo Hess, the young children of Mel Gibson’s recently widowered Father Graham (Mel Gibson). Having to deal with an alien invasion is hard enough, but adding it on top of the fact they’ve recently lost their mother and their father is spiraling into depression, is unimaginably difficult.

While Gibson and co-star Joaquin Phoenix are the stars of the film, Culkin and Breslin are at the center of the film’s most powerful scenes. One in particular, "The Dinner Scene," is absolutely gut-wrenching even out of context. With things looking grim, the family has cooked up everyone’s favorite meals, knowing it could be their last, and it all becomes too much. Graham shouts at his children, Morgan tells his father he hates him, and Bo cries over a plate of sauceless noodles. It’s quite possibly the most human moment of Shyamalan’s entire filmography and is anchored by the genuine emotional responses of two incredibly talented child actors. If only he would have chosen to center "The Village" around the youth of the commune in his next horror feature.

Ashlyn Sanchez in The Happening

Ashlyn Sanchez, John Leguizamo, and Mark Wahlberg in The Happening

Okay, yes, I can already hear you screaming from the other side of the screen about how much you hate "The Happening," but not only am I a staunch defender of this misunderstood disaster flick, I’m not alone in thinking that Shyamalan’s return to horror after the disappointing performance of "Lady in the Water" deserves to be reappraised as a B-movie classic. There were some questionable performance decisions made by the adults in "The Happening" (Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley, and Jeremy Strong), but young Ashlyn Sanchez provides a grounded performance as Jess that keeps the film from completely flying off the deep end.

Considering the scope of the disastrous suicide plague of "The Happening," Jess has been dealt a pretty awful hand. Her friends? Dead. Her mom? Dead. Her dad? Abandons her with two strangers to try and find his already dead wife only to die shortly after. Not to mention, she also witnesses two other kids get blown away by a shotgun, gets slapped by an unhinged old lady for wanting to eat a cookie, and is stuck running for her life with incompetent adults. If Jess stopped in the middle of the film to throw a tantrum, no one would blame her, but instead, she’s the driving force of the whole movie.

I love "The Happening" for the camp mess it is, but I recognize that I’m in the minority. Regardless of your own personal feelings on the film, it’s undeniable that Sanchez is giving it her all in this role — even if all the adults around her seem to be playing one big practical joke on the audience.

Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge in The Visit

Ed Oxenbould, Olivia DeJonge, and Kathryn Hahn in The Visit

After "The Happening," M. Night Shyamalan pivoted away from horror and put out the reviled adaptation, "The Last Airbender," and the Will/Jaden smith sci-fi vehicle, "After Earth." Both films were panned beyond belief, with many viewing them as the death rattle of the director’s career. However, Shyamalan should never be underestimated, and his return to horror in 2015 with "The Visit" was a refreshing return to form centered on the dynamic performances of Australian actors Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge. The duo would actually join up again the following year for the Christmas horror flick "Better Watch Out," proving that Shyamalan has a keen eye for talented young performers, and was wise to cast the two together.

"The Visit" is a found-footage horror movie about two siblings staying with their grandparents for the first time, documenting the visit and the terrifying after-hours behavior of Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie). The POV style of filmmaking requires the young protagonists to perform in an incredibly candid and naturalistic way, something that can be difficult for young actors to get across without feeling over-the-top or theatrical.

Oxenbould and DeJonge are truly fantastic in this updated "Hansel & Gretel" tale, perfectly walking the line between relatable, cringy teens and rightfully terrified leads. Shyamalan struck gold with these two, but his balanced vision as a director kept their performances feeling authentic.

Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, and Eliza Scanlen in Old

Thomasin McKenzie and Alex Wolff in Old

I (again) know I’m in the minority, but I had a blast and a half with M. Night Shyamalan’s "Old," the horror movie about the beach that makes you get old. The premise is exactly the kind of nonsense that appeases me, an unapologetic consumer of Dumb B**** Juice™, but it was the dedicated commitment of Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, and Eliza Scanlen as "children in the bodies of 20-somethings" that completely won me over. There are very talented child actors playing the actual children in the film (Nolan River, Luca Faustino Rodriguez, Alexa Swinton, Kylie Begley, Mikaya Fisher, and Kailen Jude), but as this is a movie about a beach aging people into dust, we don’t spend a lot of time with them.

What we do have, however, are adults being directed to act like children, but in a way that feels authentic to the vulnerability and terror of a child undergoing severe physical and emotional changes. Wolff, McKenzie, and Scanlen never feel like "adults mocking children" the way it would be on a sketch comedy show, instead veritably expressing themselves in the same manner as a child, but in a much larger frame. Wolff in particular is downright magnificent to watch, completely throwing himself into the role of the world’s tallest 6-year-old.

Short of maybe Mike Flanagan, there’s absolutely no one else with as strong of a track record with young actors in horror as M. Night Shyamalan. If "Knock at the Cabin" is at all faithful to the novel "The Cabin at the End of the World," there’s a good chance that Kristen Cui will join the esteemed ranks of young performers that absolutely shine in front of Shyamalan’s camera.

"Knock at the Cabin" arrives in theaters on February 3, 2023.