Signs (2002)

Signs is M. Night Shyamalan's third big movie, and second horror movie. If we don't say spoilers we'll get BuzzFeed or whatever all mad at us, so spoilers, but come on: You've heard of Signs. Chances are you've made fun of Signs. It's become something of a pop-culture punching bag, but did it earn it, or is that just misplaced residual hate from that goddamn last airbender movie and its ilk? Check out the trailer and then peep what the guys thought after revisiting this thing. Then let us know by Twitter or in the comments what you think.

 
 

Jack: Signs. Aww yeah. I was very excited to watch this one. I’ve seen this movie probably like 4 or 5 times before, but not for like 6 or 7 years. I watched it around 8 o’clock at night with 9 of my best buddies. Something about 10.

Jake: Jokes aside (because I’m a professional) I’m petty much in the same boat. I saw Signs several times around the time it came out, but haven’t seen it for years. 

Jack: Signs is Shyamalan’s 2002 follow-up to Unbreakable, which in turn came out shortly after the Sixth Sense. All three came out in really quick succession, and I actually liked all of them (spoilers) a decent little bit, but after Signs his movies started going downhill fast. As did Mel Gibson’s acceptance in pop culture. Zinger!

Jake: Okay, first off buddy, you’re forgetting one of the hallmarks of Shyamalan’s career, Wide Awake, the 1998 comedy where Rosie O’Donnell plays a sports loving nun that teaches boys about life. How could you pass over that? Second, people know there’s going to be spoilers. You mention it in the preview every time. And I guess I’m using “people” too generously, considering the one reader we get on a weekly basis. But you’re right, shit did go downhill for many involved in this movie. I mean fuck, look at Joaquin Phoenix’s attempted rap career.

 
 

Jack: No. I won’t do that. It makes me miss River too much. The better Phoenix. Anyway, the movie follows Mel Gibson as Graham Hess, a jaded ex-priest who lives on a corn farm (I think) with his dead-eyed asthmatic son and lunatic daughter. . . . I actually don’t know why I’m talking mad smack on the kids right off the bat. I thought they both did a pretty good job and generally added to the movie.

Jake: Because you are a lush and hate children? In fairness, that’s a pretty accurate description of both characters, played by Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin.

Jack: I know, it must be this white wine I found in the fridge. It’s making me catty. Anyway, Graham’s brother Merrill (not the pokemon: check the spelling . . . although the timing is suspicious . . .) is played by Joaquin Phoenix, and he lives in a more different house about 30 feet away from the main house. He's a washed-up ex-minor-league ball player who is crashing with the family because . . . washed up.

Jake: It’s a loft over the garage, man. Get your farm-dwelling layouts straight. We’re from Idaho. This is right in our bailiwick. As is knowing what a rural setting is. This movie gets going by painting the picture of a quaint town that is totally disconnected from the pace of the modern world. 30 miles outside Philly. 30... Of note is that they filmed this thing at the actual location, so it does deserve some credit. But come on, look at this.

 
Pictured: A quiet hamlet in the middle of nowhere. As long as nowhere means Trenton, NJ and Philly.

Pictured: A quiet hamlet in the middle of nowhere. As long as nowhere means Trenton, NJ and Philly.

 

Jack: I definitely thought that this was like in Kansas or Missouri or whatever. Definitely not a suburb of Philly. In any case, Graham’s personal quiet hamlet is disturbed when he is rudely awakened by his inconsiderate kids who are screaming bloody fucking murder about something or other. Graham sprints out of bed (I thought farmers were supposed to wake up early or something) and runs into the cornfield.

Jake: Maybe he’s an ex-farmer, and an ex-priest. Could go hand in hand. However, due to the kids’ incessant wailing, he has to haul ass out there to see what’s up. It was actually a really effective introduction to a key piece of the plot. Corn. It may seem like a stretch to compare it to the role water plays in Jaws, but both serve as a barrier that separates the main characters from an unknown and acts as the primary mechanism for shielding the creature(s) that are slowly revealed over the course of the film. And these characters are living in a rural farmhouse that is up against a fucking wall of corn. Basically, corn’s scary. It’s also scarier when it's riddled with crop circles and your dogs are running around like short-circuiting robots barking uncontrollably.

Jack: That’s actually a really good point. I mean, not totally original, but good nonetheless. 10 Cloverfield Lane did something similar towards the end once it started going off the rails. The corn does act as a barrier to the unknown. The mystery of what’s behind it starts to build the tension pretty nicely. Although you already know what’s back there. He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Duh.

 
How dare you say these movies were better before they showed you his true form?

How dare you say these movies were better before they showed you his true form?

 

Jack: Anyway, Graham calls the local deputy over to report the crop circles. I’m not sure what it is about her performance, but it feels off somehow. It definitely feels intentional, and I don’t think the actress does a bad job, but it certainly doesn’t feel natural. Pulls you out of the movie a little.

Jake: All the characters in this film have a certain hollowness to them, but I think that’s due at least in part to some of the isolation and grief the family is dealing with, which we will get to. Is that great writing? Probably not. Do I still think it worked? You betcha. Meanwhile, the dogs continue to go more and more off the deep-end, peeing themselves and barking at the air. #JustDogThings. In a bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing, the deputy explains that animals all over the area are behaving as if being threatened by a predator. Next thing you know one of them is being stabbed in the sternum by Morgan (Culkin) because it tried to kill Bo (Breslin). Time to dog death = 10 minutes.

Jack: The family turns on the news to find reports of crop circles appearing around the globe, apparently having originated in India. A little later on, they find out that there are now reports of strange lights hovering over Mexico. Morgan, buys in hook line and sinker, but Graham is still wrestling with the possibilities. I think there’s something here about his struggle to believe in God after he left the cloth, but honestly, it doesn’t really come through in these scenes and the film just kind of just spins its wheels.

Jake: I’m going to have to disagree with you on that one. The whole damn movie is about the struggle between believing things happen for a reason and are evidence of something more, versus believing things happen at random and for no reason at all. It’s in the fucking title. Graham is fighting it the whole time and I thought it did a pretty good job of making that known.

Jack: Ehh. Sometimes it felt like too much. Sometimes a movie can just be a movie man. Not every scene has to work toward some central theme. Or if you want it to make sure they all work. How hard is that? Damn.

Jake: To this point in the film we’ve gotten little morsels that help build tension. Crop circles appear. Dogs go fucknuts. Lights appear. Then we get a first taste of the creature itself in the now iconic “there’s a monster outside my room can I have a glass of water?” scene. I think it’s a fucking good example of how you should progressively illuminate the creature in a creature-feature, though I’m not trying to say that’s what this is because it’s not. You know what another good example of the same concept is? Jaws.

Jack: And that sequence is great on a number of different levels. First you get a genuinely creepy scene. I wouldn’t really call this scene a jump scare, but it is one that sets a feeling of unease. The dark figure on the roof is fucking scary, whatever it is. Then we are treated to a really funny bit where Merrill is trying to get Graham to scare the intruders off by screaming as they run around the building to meet on the other end. Then that comedy is quickly interrupted as their plan does not go well. The intruder manages to elude them by leaping straight up onto the roof. Seriously though, this is actually funny shit:

 
 

Jake: So shit’s obviously not going well… The deputy comes back and they try to piece together the specific physical characteristics of the intruder from the night before. As the audience, it’s kind of funny to watch these people try to keep things on the level as there are increasing signs of some sort of seriously strange goings on. So what’s a family in the middle of nowhere to do? Clearly they can’t drive the 30 miles to Philly, so they go to the one restaurant they have in town. It’s an odd sequence. They all split up and go somewhere else before dinner.

Jack: That town sequence is very strange. It also contained what is by far my least favorite scene in the movie. Merrill goes into the army recruiters, because signing up for the army is a thing everyone does at like 28 years old. Totally normal. Anyway, the motherfucking recruiter is such an over the top character. It’s bananas. I could not deal with it. I’m also not convinced that lunatic alien conspiracy theorist who works a low-level army recruiter in a suburb of Philly is a character that should exist in any universe.

Jake: There’s also some weird math going on here. I'm not talking about the shit counting Jake did up top here (that's a call-back people). Merrill’s discussion turns to a conversation about how he was an ex-minor league baseball player. The officer asks if he had two home run records. He corrects him. It was five. It’s semi-necessary character background delivered in a strange dialogue sequence. Meanwhile, Graham goes to the pharmacy to get Morgan asthma medicine and is bombarded by the pharmacist about the number of curses she has used lately. She thought she had used 37 curses,but counting “douchebag” it was 71… And the kids go to the bookstore where the owners have nothing better to do than watch for soda commercials (13 on the day) and know exactly where the one alien book they have is and how they came upon it. You know, small town stuff.

Jack: That is a very specific thing that you noticed. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, and if it was, I have no idea what Shyamalan was trying to do with that. No, you know what Jake? I figured it out, you’re a maniac. And it gets even worse - the recruiter recognizes Merrill as Jake alluded to, but then some scumbag who’s just filling out paperwork in the back corrects him to point out that Merrill was actually a fucking terrible baseball player. Why is a guy who went to highschool with Merrill just happen to be in the army office filling out paperwork for what must have been at least an hour?! It’s infuriating.

 
Pictured: 100% of the character design for Merrill. Well, minus the pokemon influence.

Pictured: 100% of the character design for Merrill. Well, minus the pokemon influence.

 

Jack: In any case, our heroes make it back from the trip into town that most certainly didn’t have the desired effect of getting their minds off of the potential aliens. Actually you know what? They’re not even potential at this point. There’s just aliens, and everyone knows it (spoilers). A baby monitor that Morgan has been carrying around with him as a walkie-talkie starts going ape, and we’re treated to the aliens talking. I have to admit, the sound effects of how the aliens talk is great. Frightening too.

Jake: It is good. It’s another great example of effectively revealing a creature in a film. As night falls, Graham decides to go check the corn crop again. Seems like a great idea… But this is one of the best sequences in the film. He grabs a flashlight, leaves the warm glow of the house and crosses that threshold into the cornfield, and everything immediately changes. It is dark, foreboding and more than anything, quiet. He reaches the crop circles and makes some bogus ass exclamation to the nerds who created them as if it would matter. As he’s heading back through the maze towards home he starts noticing the same sounds they heard on the baby monitor. As the noises get closer, he panics and drops the flashlight. As he grabs it and turns it back on the beam of light just catches the leg of what is definitely a fucking alien disappear into the corn. Scary shit. Practical effects too. Bonus points.

Jack: That leg jump scare is excellent. Totally earned. The movie has been building tension and unease effectively for a long time by this point, and this is where it starts to pay off. It’s such a simple scene, but it pays off pretty well.

Jake: That night, they watch tv as all the stations cover the story of the aliens as it continues to emerge. The kids fall asleep and clear the way for Merrill and Graham to have what is my favorite bit of dialogue and favorite scene in the whole film. Merrill asks Graham a pointed question about his feelings towards what’s happening. He’s clearly challenging what he feels is Graham’s waning faith, and looking for some comfort in the process. Graham goes on a really good monologue about how there are two types of people in the world. Effectively they are those who believe things happen for a reason, and those who believe in random chance. There is ample humor, sadness, anger, and hope all jammed into the scene and it is filmed really well, with only the glow from the tv lighting their eyes as they talk quietly to avoid waking the kids.

Jack: After staying up too late on the couch (is good parenting just dead?), the family anons to bed. Graham is woken up by a phone call that he inexplicably and quickly surmises is from Reddy, the character heroically played by Shyamalan himself. We learned along the way that Reddy is the townie who killed Graham's wife by mashing his vehicle into her person and a tree simultaneously. And in an even more inexplicable brain function, Graham decides that one word on the other end of a phone followed by a hang-up is a good reason to drive over to the house of the man who literally drove a truck into your wife and have a chat or something.

Jake: That’s exactly what he does. Remember? Small town stuff, man. He heads over to find Reddy packed the fuck up and headed out of dodge, presumably to the Poconos. He explains what happened the night he hit and killed Graham’s wife, and again suggests the central theme of ‘shit happens for a reason’ as a cause. He quickly mentions he’s going to the lake because by his estimation, the crop circles appearing in fields mean the aliens don’t like water. Infallible fucking logic. He then quickly blurts out that he found an alien and locked it in his pantry before peeling out like a goddamned NASCAR driver. Perhaps in addition to the aliens distaste for water they are also violently opposed to knocking down doors with their super strength.

Jack: That scene really did not work for me this time around. I don’t remember it feeling as unnatural as it did this time. So this dude literally captures a literal alien in his fucking pantry and then just literally decides to book it for the figurative poconos?! Didn’t maybe want to call the cops or the news or fucking anyone to tell about this alien?!

Jake: SMALL TOWN STUFF. Explains everything. Anyway, Graham decides to just head inside this man’s home because small town stuff, and grabs a knife so he can use it as a mirror to look into the pantry from the crack between the door and the floor. The alien reaches its hand out under the door, and he chops its fingers off like some baby carrots before running away. It is here we learn that these aliens have a weakness to doorknobs or wood or something like that.

Jack: Yeah, and that’s actually a pretty great shot. The cinematography of showing the alien on the knife’s reflection under the door is ace. Meanwhile, back at the homestead, my favorite scene in the movie is happening. And it’s actually more than that. I genuinely think this scene is and deserves recognition as one of the best scares ever, if not one of the most iconic horror scenes. I am of course talking about Joaquin Phoenix watching the tv, which has been moved into the closet. The news is reporting that someone present at a kid’s birthday present in Brazil has managed to get footage of one of the aliens. Then they show it via the tv in the closet. Merrill is understandably glued to the damn tv, as is the movie’s audience. He’s getting close to the screen yelling at the kids to “vamanos!” and you as the viewer are doing literally the exact same thing right up until that moment that it comes fully into frame. Still gives me chills. And sure, it doesn’t look great, but it’s also footage from a pretty shitty handycam, so it’s forgivable. You're reaction is the same as his:

Jake: I don’t think that particular scene has held up as well today but the handycam saves it for the moment as it can’t be considered the actual creature reveal. Anyway, Graham comes back and they decide to stay at home and try to survive the night, as it’s now been made clear via the news that the aliens are hostile and are going into an attack formation. They board shit up, terribly mind you, and get ready for the onslaught.

Jack: They do the worst job of boarding that house up imaginable. These are supposed to be farmers from a small town. I thought they had know-how and shit. Not like us useless city-slickers. Not these guys though, they nail two boards over door frame with a door that opens away from the fucking boards! This Old House, this was not.

Jake: They forgot their other dog outside and as they eat their last supper, they are interrupted by the baby monitor going berserk, followed by the dog going apeshit and getting killed outside. This dog death clocks in at the 1:15 mark.

Jack: You know that you are so obsessed with dog murder that I'm starting to think you may be a serial killer?

Jake: Nah, I'm normal as shit. Because they boarded up their shit terribly, they are forced to retreat to the basement, where they are pretty much trapped.

Jack: The basement scene is great. It really restricts the characters’ resources and makes the viewer feel their helplessness. Our regular reader Steve will know.just how much I like that. The filmmakers controlling everything: access points, weapons, lighting, etc., and none of it feels forced or breaks the immersion. Great horror.

Jake: Very true. Turns out there’s only one doorknob-free way in - and it’s a coal chute. Inevitably, when they find it, Morgan is standing right in front of it and we get another jump scare (I liked this one more) as an alien arm grabs him. They snag that little bastard from the icy cold arm of space-death and barricade the entry point, but Morgan goes into an asthma attack and they don’t have his medicine on hand. Bad news bears.

Jack: Yeah, that's one of the movie's best scenes for sure, but I don't think it lives up to the birthday scene.

Jake: Different strokes, man. Morgan is alive, barely, and they have no choice but to wait. They sleep for an undefined amount of time and awake to renewed radio signals claiming the aliens are leaving because people in the Middle East have found a “primitive means of defeating them.” They know Morgan needs his medicine so they check the True North that is the baby monitor and all seems clear, which is enough for them to leave the basement.

Jack: And this is some really great screenwriting here, because it lures you into a false sense of security like a goddamned champ. Seriously, it's pretty much Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle. Graham sets Morgan down to look for his asthma meddling, and the camera pans to show the tv and BAM it hits you (like a bee, you might say): the reflection of the alien whose fingers Graham chopped off is standing there. Holding morgan. It tries to poison him with some alien gas, as it’s been revealed that the aliens were on Earth to harvest people, not the planet.

Essentially the same person. It's in the eyes. Look at the eyes.

Essentially the same person. It's in the eyes. Look at the eyes.

Jake: Don’t know how it got out of that damned closet given its demonstrated inability to do doorknobs, but I digress.

Jack: Jake, these reviews are nothing more than a loosely related string of digressions. Yeah I agree that it makes no sense how it got out of the closet or serve any purpose for it to be that specific alien, but who cares because you're too busy reeling from that reveal. Fuck. But then, unfortunately, the camera pans out to show the whole alien in center frame. Not good. This movie is fucking up there in terms of effects not holding up. And it's actually worse than that because I remember thinking it looked like shit when I saw this thing in 2002. Seriously, Men in Black came out five years earlier and its aliens looked a lot better. A lot.

Jake: Yeah it looked straight shitty. Especially considering this wasn’t a low budget movie. It’s here that all the “signs” from the film are made known, and we learn that everything does happen for a reason! Bo’s weird water tic (that’s not a tic, mind you) has led to the house being covered in glasses full of what is effectively alien poison. Merrill’s baseball prowess and infatuation with the dinger have conditioned him to be ready to swing the bat at the water and poison said alien, and Morgan has asthma, so he wasn’t poisoned by the alien’s poison. Graham? He was destined to see all the “signs”, which he only knew because his wife got cut in half by a car. Damn, Shyamalan. Damn.

Jack: And the wife's destiny was to have knowledge of the future car-smashed straight into her brain? Look if I'm Graham, I'm definitely not going back to the cloth because now all God has done is kill my wife and send aliens after me. Sure I survived this time, but my wife isn't back to life. Fuck. You start thinking about the God stuff too much and you'll end up thrown straight in jail. You know what? Let's just rate this thing before I end up as the Galileo of modern day.


Ratings (1-10):

For 1, think of how Johnny Depp and Amber Heard would rate being sincere while apologizing:

 
 

For 10, think of how Mikey and Jay would rate how exciting it is to find a fahkin' tunah bro:

 
 

STORY:

Jack: 7 - The story is very well done. Sure, there are a shit-load of issues with the plot (read: why would aliens come to a planet covered in a deadly substance naked?), but you don't think about those until the movie ends. For me what holds it back from a higher score is Shyamalan's blind adherence to the overall theme of everything happens for a reason.   

Jake: 6 - I like this relatively simple story a good bit, but like Jack said, there are some gaping plot holes that have to be addressed related to the aliens level of preparation for infiltrating a planet chock fukin’ full of what amounts to poison to them. Hubris? Likely. It’s gotten the best of top men before.

WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION:

Jack: 6 - This one’s a little tricky for me (shocker). For the most part the movie pulls you in hard, and a few of the scenes have some of the highest immersion I can imagine, but then other scenes like the one in the recruiter pull you almost all the way out. I think the balance leans positive though.

Jake: 7.5 - I think this movie gets a bum rap for some of the issues we touched on, but I covered those in story. For 90% of this movie, I was in. I was really interested in what was going to happen next, and I think a lot of that was because of the great job done to gradually reveal the creatures over the course of the film. That’s basically all this movie is, anyway.

SCARE-FACTOR:

Jack: 8 - As long as I can go back to the first time I saw this thing. That birthday scene . . . damn. Does it lose effectiveness on repeated viewings? Sure. Does that mean it’s not worth repeated viewings? No. Am I asking a third question because I liked the rhythm of it? Only time will tell.  

Jake: 6.5 - This score depends heavily on if you find aliens scary, meaning you have to ask yourself if you believe in extraterrestrial life. I find the subject matter to be very plausible, so in general, aliens get me a bit. This is near the top of that list because of how it handles the reveal. Corn was a great mechanism.

EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):

Jack: 4 - This movie shows you very little for the most part. And that’s the only reason the score is as high as it is. If that alien were on screen any longer, the score would plummet much like . . . some joke about Shyamalan or Gibson. It’s late. I’m tired.

Jake: 6 - I think the movie was appropriately sparse on effects for the most part. However, those damn alien effects do not hold up well when the grand reveal is made. At all.

OVERALL:

Jack: 7 - This is a fun flick that holds your attention and keeps you thinking about it after words. I dig it, and will continue to do so despite its shortcomings. Also I forgot to mention in that review: the score (music, not rating) is fucking perfect and might be my favorite horror score.

Jake: 7 - This is a movie that holds a bit of a special place for me because I’ve seen it several times over the course of my formative years. I still like it today. It’s effective. And I don’t think it gets enough credit out there because of Shyamalan’s subsequent features. Deserving of a watch.