Director/Writer M. Night Shyamalan proved that you can make a suspenseful thriller without going overboard on the blood, guts and gore. In fact, you can even do it with a PG-13 rating. He proved that to be true with “The Sixth Sense.”
Shyamalan proved that you don’t need cheap shocks to produce scares, and you don’t need special effects to make something believable. Through masterful direction and induced paranoia from what you don’t see, there is no doubt that you won’t be riding the edge of your seat until it ends.
Signs begins with Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) waking up to the sounds of his dogs barking. Already you’ll want to know what is going on. What is so different about the dogs’ behavior? When he goes out into his field in to investigate, he discovers something rather startling; crop circles.
Crop circles were big in the 1970’s. They are fascinating works of art and very mysterious. What many people don’t know about them is that there has been in explanation, when in 1991, the hoaxers demonstrated how they made them. Instead of pretending that the questions were never answered, Shyamalan actually threw the explanations in the movie, thus making it a mystery when not even the hoaxers themselves can explain the new crop circles recently forming.
Signs takes place in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a rural countryside where everyone knows each other and familiar with their business. Graham used to be a reverend, until he lost his faith after the occurrence of a freakish accident resulting in a tragic loss. He lives in on a farm with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix – 8mm, Gladiator) and two children Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin).
From the very beginning, something appears to be wrong. The dogs bark at nothing, the wind sounds deep, and somebody/something has made crop circles in the fields. Graham is confused, but his kids know something. On the other side, his brother Merril gets disgusted whenever somebody brings up the subject of alien life or the possibility that aliens might exist.
If Signs was made by any other director, this movie would have been about aliens. But it isn’t. It’s about everything else. One of the most important aspects of the movie is the characters. Merril is a washed up minor league baseball player who seems to have no future. Morgan, luckily for us, is an alien/UFO fanatic. And Bo is the cute daughter whose precious line, “There's a monster outside my room, can I have a glass of water?” highlighted the trailer.
The strong emphasis on the characters is what makes you care about them so much. Consequently, whenever they are pitted against danger, you eagerly cheer them on. Horror movies are clear indicators of how well a director has developed his/her characters. Although the script plays a big role, the director has to give them attention. Characters have to be likable for the movie to be successful. Too often the audience doesn’t care when a character is brutally killed off; or worse, when the audience wishes for the death of an unlikable character.
In Signs, each character has a purpose. Bo has an unusual habit of never finishing her cup of water. Often, the camera pans across the house to reveal several half-drunken cups of water lying around. Graham has to face an internal struggle regarding his past and his faith. Even when he reminds the town’s people that he is no longer a reverend or associated with God, they continue to call him ‘Father.’
There are several scary scenes that will surely give you the chills. Possibly one of the greatest scenes of suspense ever in cinema history; takes place in a deserted house, where Graham is told that something is in the closet. He uses a knife as a mirror under the crack of the door to look inside. The audience is frozen the entire time.
There’s a scene where Graham’s flashlight dies in the middle of a cornfield. He sees something moving; a leg. What or who is it? Shyamalan surely knows how to get under your skin. Although a cliché, unidentified crackling sounds coming from the baby monitor builds up the suspense and anticipation.
There's a scene where a stunned and confused news anchor is showing a home movie from a child's birthday party in some other part of the world. Something disturbing can be vaguely seen in the distance that has everyone frightened. The fact that strange things have been seen outside of Pennsylvania suggests that more is going on than what was first believed to be true. Most of the people aren't convinced, but it is still raising questions.
The location of Graham’s home is another element that installs fear. They are isolated in the rural country, surrounded by tall and thick fields where even the bravest wouldn’t venture through at night, alone. Isolation worked best in The Shining, and serves the same purpose in Signs.
Something present in Signs that I’ve never seen in his earlier works, is the funny dialogue that is sprinkled throughout. Graham has an interesting conversation with a teen technician at the pharmacy that will make you laugh. There is also the sarcasm from Merril that is sometimes down right hilarious.
But you never get too comfortable. There’s humor, but there’s also drama and depression. A dark scene that I will always remember is when the family sits to have dinner. There is turmoil growing between the family members. Something is pulling them apart. The raw emotion that Gibson displays is powerful and gripping. The rest of the cast is just as good and just as convincing.
Wide and distant camera shots capture the reactions from the characters from different angles. At the same time, close-up shots keep you from finding out what is behind them until they do. Sometimes the view is never clear. You have to look into a reflection or detect a shadow.
I enjoyed every minute of Signs, because something was always going on. If Shyamalan wasn’t making us clutch our chest, he was making us laugh or making us wipe the sweat off our forehead. And after all that has happened, we come to the conclusion, where for the last fifteen minutes of the movie, time in our world stops. Signs will take you on a thrilling ride, easily understanding why it was one of the most successful movies of 2002. It will be interesting to see the next movie Shyamalan will throw out at us. After all, he has set the bar pretty high for himself.