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Are you old enough to remember a time when the name M. Night Shyamalan didn’t induce retching and dry heaves at the thought of another plot twist? Are you one of 24% of Rotten Tomatoes users that didn’t hate The Happening? (Are you a real person? Did you really see this movie? I don’t believe you)
Assuming we can forgive and forget, let’s take a look back at a better time, and a better movie: the third feature film from Mr. Shyamalan, Signs.
Aliens. Little green men who are really quite tall. With claws for hands, and an uncanny ability to find their way into basements through coal shoots.
There are few “alien” movies that frighten me besides the Alien, itself. And rightly so – their look is hard to get right. Are they fearsome creatures or do they look just like us? This question is something Signs handles best when it doesn’t have an answer.
Quick glimpses of a shadow – an other – are all that’s gifted to us for most of the film. That technique steeps us in terrifying possibility. It’s also very much borrowed.
M. Night Shyamalan, Meet Alfred Hitchcock. And George Romero. Also Jacques Tourneur.
If you’ve seen The Birds lately, you’ll know a lot about how Signs builds its suspense. Set in a rural town, an invasion at hand, a family boards themselves inside a house to wait out the inevitable; whatever that fate is, it’s never made quite clear.
There are birds in the chimney, pecking at the walls, perched ominously on schoolyard jungle gyms. Waiting. Watching. It seems their sole purpose is to make everyone quite nervous (and peck out a few eyes) – especially those of us on the opposite side of the screen.
George Romero knows a thing or two about boarding up houses, too. Night of the Living Dead also sees its rag-tag group of non-zombies holed up in a vacant midwestern home. First confined to two floors, then one, and finally driven into a very dark basement where… well, it’s what we don’t know that eats us alive.
In The Leopard Man, Jacques Tourneur treats us to one of the most scandalous scenes of mid-century horror (and one that still packs a punch), all from behind a locked door. We know there’s a leopard on the loose. A girl is out past curfew, her mother won’t open the door. There’s begging, pleading, then screaming – and before dear old mom can recognize the danger, her daughter’s blood is pooling in from underneath a crack in the door.
Little White Lies
Shyamalan uses this to great effect in Signs. Not once, but several times, we’re treated to just a bit of our alien friends. A leg walking through the corn, a shadow from inside the pantry, one long finger protruding from that very same crack underneath the door.
And we know nothing about them, of course. The alien remaining foreign is central to our fear of them. It’s the same notion of “othering” that makes any good monster monstrous – be they alien, mammal, insect, or just plain human. Keep your enemies at a distance and your audience will invent their own little white lies about them.
This understanding of classic horror techniques is what made Signs such a genuinely scary film when it premiered in 2002. It’s also what makes it remain just as scary now, assuming you follow all the rules yourself: turn the lights out, crank the sound up, put down your iPhone for a while.
Whatever your feelings on the twist ending (can you tell I got over it quick?), you cannot deny the beauty of Shyamalan’s mise-en-scene.
Shots designed in perfect symmetry place subjects in an eerie center-frame that puts them on display. With vast space on either side of the frame, it makes characters more vulnerable, more isolated, and inevitably, alone.
There’s a reflection of the film’s philosophy in this choice, as well. The former Father Graham Hess lacks a faith in God, yet the symmetry mimics the simple cross that hangs on the farmhouse wall. There is nothing more deliberate in filmmaking than the positioning of the camera; Graham may doubt a force watching over him, but each perfectly aligned shot suggests a grand design.
But is it about Faith or Science?
Never the twain shall meet; that’s our current societal outlook on this debate. But Shyamalan presents an interesting idea with Signs: that not only can strong belief in divine purpose coexist with science, but that each needs the other to survive.
Graham’s bible dismissed out of grief, the closest book to turn to in crisis is a book on U.F.O. theories. Much of it seems hackneyed – impossible even – but in the face of actual events, science (or at least, speculative science) seems a comfort. Any evidence, seems a comfort, especially as it proves correct around every turn.
Of course, there’s a point where science fails; it’s not wrong, but the truth becomes a threat. We can have all the evidence in the world and still not be dealt the right hand to deal with it. What Signs determines in its dealings with aliens from outer space is that science may provide answers, but also fear. Hope and faith – faith that we have purpose, that our lives can be lived with reason – can assauge that fear. But belief in both are necessary if we’ve any hope of getting out of that boarded up basement and seeing the light of day.
The Fun Stuff
Yes, Shyamalan wrote himself a whole scene. Three, actually. He’s an integral character. That’s way more than a “Hitchcock.” If you want to know what happened to Shyamalan the auteur, kind of think it mighta been that ego. But what do I know?
The CGI reveal at the end kinda ruins it. Talk amongst yourselves.
Baby Abigail Breslin is the most darling child ever to grace a film. Pray your adorable child doesn’t start telling your their water’s “contaminated.”
If You Like It, Watch:
The Astronaut’s Wife (1999) – Husband goes to space. Husband comes back to Earth. Husband is maybe an Alien now. Charlize Theron sells it with her Rosemary’s Baby haircut.
Mirage Men (2013) – I don’t watch many alien conspiracy theory documentaries. This is one worth watching. If you watch it after midnight, it may even scare you a little.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – The classic Spielberg tale of alien invasion and mashed potato mountains.
Super 8 (2011) – A really fun Spielbergian effort from J.J. Abrams that involves shaky photography (let the easily nauseated beware) and a pretty decent alien monster.
Absentia (Click for trailer)
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