Praying with Anger (1992) Ardent fans who have a sixth sense for Shyamalan's work may still be ignorant of his directorial and screenwriting debut. Praying was never given an international release, but restricted to Indian television. Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Praying was a late entry - allowed in because the programmers were so impressed by the New York University-educated newcomer's debut (he was 20 when he shot it). Loosely autobiographical, it centres on an Indian raised in the US who returns to his birthplace only to find the culture shock an affront to the senses. (The protagonist is played by Shyamalan.) The critics appreciated his talent, but found the work 'too Hollywood'. Wide Awake (1998) Shyamalan's sophomore project also reverberated with autobiographical echoes. The film chronicles the adventures of a 10-year-old boy studying at a Catholic school (Shyamalan attended a prestigious Catholic school in Philadelphia) who decides to look for God after his grandfather dies. It was written and directed by Shyamalan, and the casting is a lot less school-project-like, with Rosie O'Donnell (as a nun, above) and Julia Stiles. (This is the only one of Shyamalan's films in which he doesn't appear.) But the boy's journey came to a dead end at the box office. It was one of the lowest-grossing films of 1998, with paltry takings of US$285,000. The Sixth Sense (1999) Against the run of form, the floodgates opened. A revelation in technique, box office and recognition, this work not only made sense, it captured a collective sensibility. Many have seen it more than once (feeling a need to pick up clues missed first time around). It took nearly US$300 million at the box office in the US alone - and picked up six academy award nominations, winning Shyamalan two. Haley Joel Osment plays a boy who tells a psychologist (Bruce Willis, below with Osment): 'I see dead people.' They form a bond and, before you can say more money than sense, comes the twist at the end, which was the biggest cinematic surprise for years. Unbreakable (2000) Next up, Shyamalan produced a virtual clone of The Sixth Sense - but bereft of the surprise and wonder of his previous success. It struggled to make sense and, at the box office, to break even. It grossed about US$95 million in the US. Unbreakable's plot was promising: a man (Bruce Willis) escapes from a train wreck without a scratch (the other 132 passengers die). Then he meets a man (Samuel L. Jackson, above with Willis), who suffers from brittle bones and questions his escape. There's a sense of deja vu with Shyamalan leaving clues here and there. But whereas The Sixth Sense created a phenomenon, Unbreakable felt like just another film. Signs (2002) With the pressure and expectation climbing, Hollywood's hottest director then selected the least obvious course of action: crop circles. Disney got so excited it made him the highest-paid screen-writer, with a cheque for US$5 million. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix play brothers who find mysterious marks on their farmland, which neighbours attribute to aliens. The film resists Steven Spielberg's extraterrestrial route (there are no flashy special effects), instead ploughing a narrative around the idea of faith and how it can help to defend against 'outsiders'. The Village (2004) The post-September 11 effect is more obvious in The Village, with Phoenix (above), Adrien Brody and Bryce Dallas Howard living in an isolated village surrounded by forest that is said to be full of monsters. When Phoenix's character (above) wanders into the woods, all hell breaks loose - no spoiler here, but the suspense and tension of villagers facing 'outsiders' shares more than a few echoes with US foreign policy. The critics described the film as a miscalculation, and financially it didn't add up. It cost US$70 million, but made just US$110 million in the US.