Not-So-Classic Review: The Village

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary: A film with the best intentions that, in the end, simply doesn’t deliver.

Review:  M. Night Shyamalan, once an acclaimed young filmmaker, has gradually become something of a joke in Hollywood, thanks to a string of subpar films that wrap themselves in a cloak of unfulfilling mystery.  It’s a shame too, as early on in his career, he was responsible for ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable’, and ‘Signs’, which encompass a trinity of good, suspenseful filmmaking and are among my favorite films to watch.  By most accounts his problems began with his follow-up to ‘Signs’, a little film called ‘The Village’ which, while interesting, ultimately set itself up for disaster.

To reference something James once said, the ‘The Village’ isn’t half bad, it’s just a little under three-fourths good.  It suffers from two major issues. First, it was marketed as a strict horror movie.  I remember the commercials for this movie attempted to portray it in a shocking, frightening manner, comparing it to ‘Signs’ in much the same, unfair way that ‘Unbreakable’ was compared to ‘The Sixth Sense’ upon its release.  The truth is that, while there are elements of horror in ‘The Village’, its much more of slow-paced mystery than simple terror.  Those who went in expecting ‘Signs’ found themselves disappointed when they realized they were dealing with a very different animal.

For being a slow-paced mystery with a touch of terror, though, it isn’t badly done… at first.  The turn of the century town in which the film takes place is guarded on all sides by evil spirits in the surrounding forest, or so the elders say, and so the town folk can never leave, forced to remain locked in forever.  Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to guess that this film would have someone, that someone being a girl, daring to venture into the forest and the outside world, and therefore confronting these alleged demons.

All that is fine and dandy, but now we must get to the second problem.  ‘The Village’ banks on a plot twist that doesn’t really work.  I won’t tell you what it is, for the sake of seeing the film, but rest assured, it doesn’t help the story.  The issue is this; a plot twist, when used well, ought to really add something to the story.  It ought to show things in a new light and give new meaning and perspective to the events of the film.  It should give depth. This is the sort of twist M. Night Shyamalan gave us in ‘The Sixth Sense’.

In ‘The Village’ however, the plot twist that comes devalues a lot of the film’s previous moments.  The sense of mystery that worked well enough earlier seems pointless afterword.  It raises too many questions that the film vaguely answers at best, and it leaves the audience feeling empty inside.  Instead of some needed depth for the film, it makes it seem shallower.  As Roger Ebert put it (though he disliked this film much more than I did) it was little better than saying that everything that happened up to that point was a dream.

That all said, its obvious Shyamalan had a lot of faith in this story.  He does show strong direction in this film, and by that I mean he does a good job of setting things up early in the film.  He does spark our interest in what’s going on and we do care about what happens to the people of this town.  The initial ideas we are presented with are strong enough; they just get derailed and don’t wind up paying off.  An audience should feel challenged, but never alienated, and unfortunately there’s more of the latter than the former by the time the credits roll.

‘The Village’ was a box office success, though not to the degree its predecessors had been.  Critically it was mostly negative or, at best, mixed.  I think most people would agree that this is where M. Night Shyamalan began descending into the hole from which he has yet to stop digging.  Still, I have hope that he has good filmmaking left in him, provided he neither gives in to the demands of Hollywood nor his own established tropes (he really should stop putting plot twists in his films).  I happened to like the first half of ‘The Village’, and so I recommend this movie for one full watch.  Come to think of it, maybe less than a full watch — when you come to the part where the female protagonist decides to leave the village, you may just want to stop it there, avoid the plot twist, and leave well enough alone.

Signs

Stars: ★★★☆

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.

Classic Review: The Sixth Sense

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A thoughtful, philosophical horror film that’s one of the best ever made.

Review:  Of all the films nominated for Best Picture, only four have been horror films; ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Jaws’, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Sixth Sense’.  What these works have in common is that they use horror as a gateway into otherwise inaccessible realms of human drama, in contrast to the low-brow horror film which promotes fear for fear’s sake.  ‘The Sixth Sense’ attempts to open the minds of the audience to the weight of human beings on their world.  Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it’s undeniable that the dead have a far-reaching influence on the lives of their loved ones and the places they inhabited.  The belief in ghosts is the belief that this influence is not limited to the past.  ‘The Sixth Sense’ counters the use of ghost stories for cheap scares with the conviction that true horror lies in the breakdown of communication between human beings, living and dead.

The central relationship is between Bruce Willis’ character, a child psychologist named Malcolm, and Haley Joel Osment’s character, a profoundly disturbed little boy named Cole.  All ghost stories are fundamentally about the collision between past and future.  Malcolm’s tragic past entangles him, and it creates a rift between him and Cole, whose ability to lucidly experience the supernatural both empowers and cripples him.

Cole’s subverted wide-eyed wonder is the fountainhead of the film’s horror and plays in a very Spielbergian manner.  It’s a remarkably simple premise and a testament to the proper use of ideas.  Too many films lack a powerful idea at the center and thus attempt to patch up their flaws with a thousand weak concepts.  Shyamalan, whatever his flaws, has steadfast faith in his simplest ideas, which is more than most filmmakers can show.  It’s that faith that has a hypnotic effect on the audience and makes cinema work.  ‘The Sixth Sense’ is slow, measured, and thoughtful, letting suspense build and the characters breathe and feel real.

It’s common in the postmodern world to deny the supernatural, but the belief in ghosts, true or not, says something profound about what people think of each other.  Ghosts are often seen as invaders, intruding on everyday life with the whispers of an unresolved past.  They’re scary because they’re people like us.  Perhaps in today’s world, we no longer believe in ghosts for the same reason we find it difficult to speak to our neighbors.  We want insulation.  Jean Paul Satre believed that hell was other people, and it’s a prevailing idea; hauntings suggest that we live in a very crowded hell.

‘The Sixth Sense’ is one of the best horror films ever made.  It’s paradoxically mature and child-like, which is the condition we’ll need to embrace if we want to start believing in ghosts again.

Cult Classic: Unbreakable

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Summary:  Introspective and powerful, M. Night’s second film touches the heart and stirs the mind.

You have to have the right kind of expectation.

You have to have the right kind of expectation.

Review:  After the smash hit ‘The Sixth Sense’ left horror/thriller fans and movie fans in general out of breath, many expected M. Night Shyamalan’s next film to repeat the success and leave another indelible imprint in our popular imagination.  Perhaps it did, but it did so in a way people did not expect.  Unfortunately for the ambitious director, the studio was intent on capitalizing on ‘The Sixth Sense’ to sell ‘Unbreakable’.  M. Night was not pleased.  They are completely different films, despite sharing the same star, a similar production crew, and twist ending.  ‘Unbreakable’ is a thoughtful, slow, careful drama that has the power to rend your heart and provoke your mind.  The studio didn’t sell it as such, leading to the disappointment of filmgoers.  Since its initial lackluster run, however, it has found new life and finally, a home in the hearts of a cult following.

It spins the tale of a security guard, David Dunn, played by a very quiet Bruce Willis.  He is haunted by a mysterious, handicapped, comic book historian, Elijah Price, who believes that David is some kind of superhero.  You see, David was involved in a horrific train wreck, which killed everyone on board, except him.  He doesn’t know what to think, but after unexplainable things begin to happen to him, he has to turn to Elijah for answers.

The film touches on the most universal of questions: The meaning of life.  Is there a reason why David survived?  Is there a reason why Elijah was born with his debilitating condition?

Wrapping up this story is a sense of art direction both subdued and unforgettable.  M. Night frames his shots as if they were frames in a comic book, and even uses certain colors and color coordination to draw our attention to certain people at certain times… just like a comic book.  This is brilliant.

Backing the emotion is James Newton Howard, M. Night Shyamalan’s composer of choice.  Mr. Howard brings no bombast or silliness, only a quiet, stirring reflective spirit, until the danger, both spiritual and physical, rises, when he unleashes the pent up emotions within the central themes.  Violins dominate the orchestral selection, except a quiet, almost mournful heroic tune, played by a sparse brass section.

Bruce Willis is excellent.  It’s hard to say more.  Samuel L. Jackson, as Elijah Price, makes you truly care about his often suspicious character.

As a unique take on the superhero genre, it definitely left a mark on my mind, and I’m sure it has on many others.