Butt-clenching thrills

Signs is a haunting alien movie that offers chills, not boom and bang

Hey, Ma, I found this head over by the thresher. Kin I keep it?

Hey, Ma, I found this head over by the thresher. Kin I keep it?

Rated 5.0

While The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable displayed writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s true potential, neither film qualified as great. Signs is Shyamalan’s first great film.

This tale of aliens coming to Earth with unknown intentions is unlike any alien movie before it. While the film contains shades of other horror pictures like War of the Worlds, the Romero zombie films and the scary parts in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the similarities come off as appropriate homage rather than copycat. Signs is one of those films that produces the sensation you are experiencing something for the first time, rather than a genre retread.

After waking from an apparent nightmare, Pennsylvania resident and former priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) finds one of those mysterious crop circles in his cornfield. Television programs show that strange lights are appearing in the sky all over the world, in close proximity to other existing crop patterns. A brief belief that “nerds” have perpetrated some form of grand worldwide hoax gives way to the ultimate fear that the aliens are coming, and they may wish to feast on our bones.

Within minutes, with his very first scene, the director uses audio tricks and slow camera reveals to confuse and startle us. Shyamalan demonstrates that he is a master of true movie fright, opting for the risky option of “less is more” and pulling it off in grand style.

Those who like their alien movies heavy on the lasers, explosions and catch phrases might be disappointed, although your appreciation for good schlock like Independence Day shouldn’t prohibit you from having your ass kicked by this movie. Signs contains what that admittedly fun trash did not: honest, hair-raising chills. In many ways, it is the Anti-Independence Day.

While Signs did cause me to jump a few times, its greatest virtue is that it made me extremely uncomfortable—palm sweating, butt-clenching uncomfortable—for almost its entire running time. That’s the way I like my horror films.

Now, I wish that it were professional to discuss certain parts of the picture—those brilliant little horrifying moments—that I admire so much. Well, damn me, and damn any critic who purports to give away the film’s best scares. This movie worked for me because I had no idea what was to come, absolutely no clue, and that is the best way to view the film. If some goofball should come up to you during lunch hour and blurt out the scary parts, throw your Hawaiian Punch at the cad and tell him to go away.

Gibson, with stiff posture and a perpetually shell-shocked expression, is magnificent as a man who has lost his faith. He successfully portrays a good, albeit miserable man who has lost his sense of identity. Joaquin Phoenix is a strong presence as younger brother Merrill, a former baseball player who has come to help Graham raise his two children (the wonderful Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, further proof that Shyamalan is a gifted director of children).

Shyamalan’s horror picture is as much about spirituality as it is about little green men, and that will probably turn off its share of moviegoers looking for the big bang. The movie’s message is based on the Hindu theme of “no coincidences,” and his screenplay comes to a well-crafted conclusion, unlike the horribly botched ending of his last film, Unbreakable.

I was beginning to think that moviemakers were losing their ability to produce the kind of frights that got you jumping and squirming in films like Alien and Jaws. Shyamalan, with this intense, creepy masterpiece, shows that there is plenty of dread-potential left in the monster movie.