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.