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?
Again, we return to the fear of the unknown. Merrill asks his brother for "fatherly" counsel at such a desperate time. Graham explains in a pastoral way that there are basically two types of people. One type sees strange and coincidental events as simply a matter of luck--nothing but mere chance. Other people view such moments as something more, something cosmic. They look for signs and believe nothing is ever left to chance. Things happen for a reason. As Merrill takes some comfort in the latter, Graham assures him that it is quite the opposite. This could be the end of the world and "we are all alone."
At heart, "Signs" is a "War of the Worlds" remake. But there are no spectacular special effects and no cities obliterated on screen. The focus is on one family and how it deals with an impending alien encounter (with an especially claustrophobic and hyperventilation-inducing ending). It takes an apocalypse to bring Graham's faith--or lack thereof--to the ultimate test.
But aside from Shyamalan's greater vision of the human condition, as sheer entertainment, "Signs" is a genuine treat. I won't go as far as Newsweek and call him "The Next Spielberg," but Shyamalan does have a good sense of how to thrill an audience. Some of this is done with music and sound effects. Janet Maslin once wrote that "'The Shining' may be the first movie that ever made its audience jump with a title that simply says 'Tuesday.'" In "Signs," there is an eerie cricket-like noise emanating from a baby monitor. (In "The Changeling," you can feel your hair stand up as George C. Scott plays back his recorder over and over, convinced he hears a voice of a child ghost in his house. As he leans into the speaker, we start to hear a faint whispering.) And finally there's the always reliable shocker brought on by a glimpse of something. A reflection on a television screen, what looks like a leg moving in a cornfield.
People will come out in droves to see "Signs." They want to place themselves in that uncomfortable position where there is nowhere to hide. Some may want to cover their eyes--but why do that? You didn't pay $8.00 not to see the entire movie. It is about being terrified and entertained at the same time. Those looking for a nice jolt this summer--nothing more and nothing less--will be quite satisfied and possibly a bit rattled when they exit the theater.
And for those who see "Signs" and find it completely boring, I recommend "Faces of Death" parts I through VI.
Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.