Summary: A terrifying but hopeful film that suffers from a cultural divide but benefits from an incredible musical score.
Review: There are some movies that stick with you. Little bits of soundtrack, snippets of dialog, memorable images that excited or traumatized you. Since before I can remember, I’ve had a bit of a problem with aliens; well, the pop culture conception of them as home-invading demons with psychosexual tendencies. When I first saw Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’, it scared the hell out of me. It was the sum of all my nightmares. It didn’t end when the credits rolled; I kept seeing the monsters in my living room and in blank television screens, I heard their voices over my shoulder while that awful, brilliant music heralded their arrival. ‘Signs’ was nightmare fuel unleaded.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to realize that, even though it has some peculiar flaws, ‘Signs’ is one of my favorite films. It’s because of the way that M. Night skillfully turns a horror story into an uplifting parable of the divine hand. It’s my greatest fear and my greatest hope combined. It still chills me at the right moments, but my newfound affection for it has dimmed the alien monsters in my peripheral vision.
‘Signs’ has a major flaw, a storytelling hiccup that defines the latter half of Shyamalan’s career thus far. That is, he doesn’t speak the same language as most filmgoers. He has a distinctly Eastern worldview, one that remembers the power of folklore and allows, in a childlike fashion, for leaps of logic. A filmmaker risks it all on an audience’s capacity to understand the story he or she tells. Shyamalan tells stories from another time and place, and doesn’t bother to explain the philosophy; probably because he can’t. It’s a communication breakdown. I grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where I breathed in Eastern philosophy along with the incense. Shyamalan’s storytelling resonates with me. He speaks a language I’m lucky enough to understand. Most critics of his work, it seems to me, come from a Western, rationalist background, which values logic and clarity above all else. The problem with ‘Signs’ is that it’s a Western movie with an Eastern soul, and that disconnect prevents the story from reaching everyone that it could.
The film’s cinematography is superb. It feels like a Hitchcock film with a more dynamic camera. The frame bleeds suspense. But, of course, sound is half the picture; much like Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Psycho’ and John Williams’ score for ‘Jaws’, James Newton Howard’s jaw-dropping music is insanely good and exceeds the film’s own quality. It is equally wonderful and twisted. The mark of a good score, such as this one, is that it fires the imagination on all cylinders, even without the film.
M. Night Shyamalan has fallen out of vogue, but I’ll always think fondly of his distinct style, and I’ll continue to revisit this film again and again.