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Sign Me Up

M. Night Shyamalan's latest feature gives a jolt to a lazy summer.

12:00 AM, Aug 2, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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WHY DO WE want to scare ourselves? Why do we drag ourselves to a theater, first wanting to be frightened, and then acting as if someone had kidnapped us, strapped us in, and forced our eyelids open, a la "Clockwork Orange"? It's strange that the definition of "entertainment" includes being terrified. Nevertheless, there I was with hundreds of other moviegoers watching "Signs," M. Night Shyamalan's latest supernatural thriller.

In one particular scene, we're all hoping for something to jump out of the pantry. You can hear a pin drop. Mel Gibson looks in closer. And closer. You can see a shadow roaming back and forth underneath the closed door. Gibson's character crouches, leans in against the crack of the door, and tries to sneak a peek. People in the audience are murmuring, "Oh no," and "Don't do it." Too late. In complete silence, the camera zooms right to the edge of the floor, where the shadow appears. Even the air in the theater is still.

What happens next elicits one of the loudest collective movie theater screams I've heard. Not that anyone was caught off-guard. Audiences are so well trained these days that dead silence on screen has become a reliable indicator that a surprise is just around the corner. If it turns out to be a false alarm, the actor usually lets out a sigh of relief. Some naive audience members also think the coast is clear and relax. Then the actor turns around, and surprise: The killer is right behind him--and the people fooled into that false sense of security have now had an accident in their pants.

All of which is to say: These days it takes a lot more than scary looking monsters and special effects to thrill an audience. But Shyamalan seems fully cognizant of this and does his best to spook us out. "Signs" is the fifth movie directed by Shyamalan, but only his third major film, following the blockbuster "The Sixth Sense," and the less successful--though still compelling--"Unbreakable." (Incidentally, he also wrote the screenplay for the 1999 mouse epic "Stuart Little.") Aware that some of the best horror and thriller pics involve mysteries of the unknown--whether it be the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," clairvoyance in "The Sixth Sense," or demon possession in "The Exorcist"--in "Signs" Shyamalan explores the phenomena of crop circles.

From the opening credits, it is clear "Signs" will move at a faster pace than his last two films. The score by James Newton Howard, complete with Bernard Herrmann-esque strings and a turbulent brass section, should earn an Academy Award nomination. (Howard also composed the music for "Unbreakable," "The Sixth Sense," and the theme song for "ER.")

Like Shyamalan's other movies, "Signs" takes place in eastern Pennsylvania (Shyamalan grew up in Philadelphia, where "Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" were set; "Signs" happens in rural Bucks County). Widower Graham Hess (played by Mel Gibson) lives on a farm with his two children and younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). Graham, a former Lutheran minister, has lost his faith after losing his wife in a terrible car accident. He is spiritually adrift and doubting the existence of a benevolent God. And it is at this very moment in his life that crop circles first appear in his backyard.

At the same time, crop circles start appearing around the world, followed by mysterious lights in the sky. Everyone is convinced aliens from another planet are contacting us. The question remains, Are they good aliens like E.T. or the ones in "Contact" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," or bad ones like the aliens in "Independence Day"? Or even worse--the host-organism invaders in the "Alien" series and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"--which latter may still hold the title of Most Depressing Ending Ever. (I'm referring to the 1978 version. Remember, if you fell asleep, the host organism would take over your body. And just when the one woman thinks she's made it, she reunites with Donald Sutherland, who she thinks is the only other survivor. He turns to her and begins hissing the alien noise. She screams. The end.)

Shyamalan is intrigued by human reaction to other-worldly encounters. How do we reconcile such events with our normal, everyday lives? Graham's son, played ever-so-seriously by Rory Culkin (how many Culkins are out there?), is convinced the crop circles are navigational points and that the aliens are most likely hostile--that their own natural resources have been exhausted and so they have come to our planet to harvest ours. But what exactly are these aliens harvesting?