After giving us the spine-tingling "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable", director M. Night Shyamalan is back with his third directorial venture, this one dealing with crop circles and alien visitations. "Signs", starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, has broken a number of box-office records since its release a few weeks ago, and seems set to cement Shyamalan's reputation as a master of all things spooky.
"Signs" begins innocuously enough, with Graham Hess (Gibson), a retired priest, waking up in his farmhouse in rural America. He hears his children shouting in his fields and rushes out to see what's wrong, only to discover strange symbols carved into his crops. His dogs suddenly go berserk, barking at shadows and turning savagely violent. He hears noises in the night, but can't find any visible presence of intruders. His baby monitor suddenly wakes up and starts emitting strange squeaks and signals. And the crop circles keep getting bigger...
He turns on his television and finds out that he's not the only one with the affliction - crop circles have begun appearing all over the world, and everyone, from newscasters to religious leaders and conspiracy theorists, has a theory about them. Are the crop circles real? Are they evidence of an impending alien invasion? Or are they just a gigantic hoax? Shyamalan refuses to tell you until the very end, cleverly teasing you into drawing your own conclusions...and then shattering them with some brilliant (and very scary) twists.
As a thriller, "Signs" is easily one of the better ones out today; as a scarefest, it is simply chilling. Shyamalan has mastered the art, a la Hitchcock, of infusing ordinary objects with menace and mystery - witness the baby monitor that becomes a beacon for radio transmissions, or the mute television, or the glasses of water that keep appearing around Hess's home. His lingering, slowly moving camera pans are perfectly orchestrated, leaving just enough to your imagination and conjuring up high tension without resorting to a single special effect.
Shyamalan's actors are talented, though understated as always - Gibson does a good job portraying the priest who has to struggle with his faith, while Phoenix is very good as the supportive brother. Shyamalan's penchant for using children as the focal points of his movies is also very much in evidence - both child actors are give meaty roles, and they more than do them justice. The acting is matched by a well-written, well-paced storyline, and backed by great photography and Shyamalan's trademark precise direction - and the end result is a movie that's well worth the ticket price. Catch up with "Signs" soonest!This article was first published on 30 Aug 2002.