M. Night Shyamalan‘s film-making career took off faster than anyone could have anticipated, cranking out three straight masterpieces (there, I said it) with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and 2002’s extraterrestrial horror drama, Signs. The director’s film résumé has admittedly been back and forth since, however, more recently, he’s found himself at the top of his game.
With Signs, Shyamalan took elements of horror and combined them with those of a character-driven drama, making for a film that transcends any one genre and stands as a great film in general. August 2nd marks the 15th (!!!) anniversary of the film’s existence, and we’ve put together a few reasons why you should absolutely revisit it.
5. The Exploration of Grief and the Effect it has on a Family
The powerful drama at the heart of Signs is a major reason why the film is so memorable. The story follows Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former priest who, after losing his wife in a tragic car accident, turned away from religion and began to grow out of touch with his young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), and his younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). The Hess family lives together on an isolated Pennsylvania farm, which, like other farms and places around the world, is suddenly plagued by a mysterious crop circle.
While the horror of the film is prevalent throughout (more on that later), Shyamalan never loses sight of the story’s beating heart. As the family is cast into a horrific situation that was never planned for (which draws comparisons to the sudden death of Mrs. Hess), they struggle with their faith, sense of purpose, and family division. The demons of the Hess family are more powerful than the terror at their door, and when they face that grief head-on, the family is able to move forward, unified and at peace with their situation.
4. The Stellar Performances
Strong performances in a horror film can improve a genre movie significantly. All-time classics such as The Exorcist and The Silence of the Lambs are evidence of the effect performances can have on the memory of its audience. Signs, though not mentioned as frequently, falls into the same category. The performances of Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin as the pained Hess children are far too underappreciated. As Morgan, Culkin displays a realistic angst against his father, who doesn’t offer the children the same sort of nurturing compassion as their mother. Morgan is lost without his mother, and he harbors resentment toward his dad for giving up on the things his mom found important. Breslin, too, owns her role as Bo, the youngest member of the Hess family, and portrays the character in a way that’s true to her age. She’s confused. She doesn’t understand the situation she’s been cast into. There’s an innocence that compliments her sadness and familial love, especially for her big brother, and Breslin was perhaps the only child actress who could have walked that line to such resounding success.
In regard to the adults, Joaquin Phoenix is a beast of an actor. He steps into roles and wholly possesses characters with scholarly knowledge of their headspace (see The Master for further confirmation). In Signs, the portrayal is that of a soft-spoken character. Merrill is a failed minor league baseball player living in the shadow of his well-regarded older brother. Living on the farm with his brother, nephew and niece to help keep up with things after the loss of Mrs. Hess, Merrill accepts quiet responsibility for the family’s emotional well-being. Phoenix nails the role of a character who spends more time thinking of the words in his head rather than saying them aloud. Every word he speaks comes with the thought of its repercussion. He perfectly displays love for his niece and nephew, and an admiration and sadness for his older brother.
Speaking of which, Graham Hess is one of the greatest performances of Mel Gibson’s acclaimed acting career. The sorrow behind his eyes contains an unrivaled dramatic heft, and it will break your heart every single time. Gibson plays Graham as a man who has replaced a sure-strength and light (his religion) with disbelief and resentment. The character neglects his role as the pillar of strength and wisdom for his family and community in the face of tragedy, and Gibson exudes that struggle throughout his emotionally-satisfying character arc. The place Graham ends the film is far greater than where he began, and Mel Gibson was the perfect vessel for the character’s journey.
3. M. Night Shyamalan
Shyamalan’s career as a filmmaker and storyteller has been all over the place, but there’s no denying that Signs saw the director mastering his craft. Confidently handling a worldwide alien invasion tale with a small-scale, character-driven approach, Shyamalan’s talent is something to be admired. There are moments of horror and unbearable tension that build naturally throughout Signs, but rather than counteract the drama and emotional impact, these moments strengthen the payoff due to M. Night’s fleshed out characters and his handling of the material. While there are people who don’t approve of the “water” reveal at the end of the film, I continue to find that moment satisfying and true to the story of faith, chance, and purpose that M. Night Shyamalan so expertly tells.
2. The Masterful Score by James Newton Howard
James Newton Howard has scored many Shyamalan films, frequently highlighting the intended emotions of each M. Night movie through music. Signs, though, may be the best of their collaborations. It’s impossible to think of Signs without remembering the music and how well it accompanies the film. Howard hooks viewers as early as the opening credits with his thrilling, mysterious theme, incredibly capturing the tone of the alien invasion. That theme evolves throughout the film, however, allowing the emotional payoff of the film to send chills down the spine of each viewer. It’s worth revisiting to admire every second of it.
1. It’s Scary as Hell
Make no mistake about it, for all of the character drama in Signs, it remains terrifying. The sense of isolation that the Hess family faces both literally and metaphorically is utilized for maximum tension, in two scenes especially: the night-time cornfield scene, and when the aliens finally enter the house. Both scenes are played with a firm realization that nobody is coming to save the family. The characters are alone in a time of high crisis, and Shyamalan effectively makes viewers feel that same fear. Unlike most alien invasion films, Signs is grounded in realism due to its focus on character over spectacle. This causes the viewer to touch on more personal fears: the safety of their loved ones and the horror that may be lurking outside of their doors. It’s a masterwork in fear and suspense. Revisit it, but not alone.