Signs of the times
M. Night Shyamalan’s latest builds with steady thrills to religious resolution
George Romero’s 1967 classic of bunker horror, Night of the Living Dead, is my knee-jerk response when asked to name my favorite film. Romero’s movie plays on the inherent primal fear of isolation, setting itself primarily at a secluded Pennsylvania farmhouse under assault by supernatural forces. It created the template by which later horror films would gauge themselves … at least until John Carpenter’s Halloween came along, shifting the focus back to a suburban setting. This in turn resulted in the genre’s being deluged with countless knock-offs, eventually leading to the gradual self-parody of the Scream-type horrors.
With Signs, M. Night Shyamalan not only recovers from his Unbreakable sophomore slump, but also returns the genre back to its roots, delivering a retro-horror film that obviously holds Romero’s classic dear (as evidenced by the setting and the eventual dubious refuge of the basement), then takes the whole exercise back and lays it at the door of Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast.
Pennsylvania farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) awakens one morning to find that bugaboo of alien conspiracy theories, an enormous crop circle, carved into his cornfield. It’s just more bad news for the Hess household, as the former minister has lost his faith after the gruesome death of his wife, the mother of their two young ‘uns. Brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) has returned to the family homestead from the baseball field of dreams in disgrace, a minor-league slugger holding the dubious honor of the most-strikeouts record.
But as isolated from civilization as the family may seem, they soon find they are not alone. Their link to the outside world, the television set, reports with growing urgency the spreading rash of crop circles around the world. And then reports begin of unidentifiable lights gathering over the skylines of major cities just as the family animals begin getting skittish. And what the hell is that thing lurking in the rows of corn out in the field?
As proven with his debut The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan knows how to take his time building a framework of suspense, layering on the unease with an almost fastidious patience. However, if you enter Signs expecting a major twist at the end, à la his two previous entries, you are bound to be disappointed. Actually, even knowing that there is no twist at the end, some folks are bound to be disappointed, even irked, by Shyamalan’s resolution. It’s not giving anything away to say that acceptance of the film’s payoff depends on your personal headspace when it comes to notions about God.
Look, Gibson is a minister who has just lost his faith—how hard is it to follow that to the logical conclusion? That said, the ending is a bold choice on Shyamalan’s part, even though it really is a reference to George Pal’s take on War of the Worlds.
Unfortunately, Signs is not perfect, leaving certain narrative strings dangling (such as Gibson discovering an alien locked in a pantry and then wandering off without doing anything about it). That said, however, Signs is still one of the best nail-biters in recent memory, delivering with the most jump-in-seat moments since John Carpenter’s The Thing (but without the gore) and a deft climax that manages to meld suspense with a certain unexpected poignancy.