Families, Fear and Faith: In 'Signs,' Shyamalan Shows That He Understands How to Scare Us and Still Make Us Think about What Matters Most

Article excerpt

Byline: David Ansen

Director M. Night Shyamalan is a very young man who understands a very old lesson (one most of his peers have forgotten): it's what you don't see that makes a scary movie scary. But then one of the things that makes "Signs" such a refreshing summer movie is that it goes against almost all the grains of contemporary Hollywood razzle-dazzle filmmaking--as did "The Sixth Sense." Shyamalan starts with characters, and builds from the ground up. He isn't afraid of long scenes with lots of talk and little cutting. Special effects? Sparse, at best. Hipster irony? Banned. Most pop filmmaking today resembles fireworks displays: bright, random blasts of color, which fade from the memory as soon as you've said "wow." "Signs," like "The Sixth Sense" and even the misconceived but artfully directed "Unbreakable," forces you to lean forward, in anticipation and dread, and absorb. And like all things you stare at intently, his unsettling movies hang around in your head long after they're over.

The premise of "Signs" is simplicity itself. On a Pennsylvania farm, a family discovers mysterious crop signs carved out of their cornfields. Is it a hoax or... the prelude to an extraterrestrial invasion? Widower Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), an Episcopalian minister who has lost his faith after the agonizing death of his wife, tries to keep his family calm in the face of mighty strange occurrences. Spooked, the family dog viciously tries to attack his 6-year-old daughter, Bo (Abby Breslin). His asthmatic son, Morgan (Rory Culkin), starts picking up odd signals on the baby monitor. Graham's brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), chases in circles after a man who seems to vanish into thin air. With the exception of a local cop, beautifully played by Cherry Jones, and the town veterinarian, played by the director, this is almost the entire cast of this minimalist movie, which is able to conjure up a world-threatening menace while barely leaving the confines of the family farm. …