Signs is a much better movie than people remember.

M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 film is not only a great, underappreciated thriller, but it helped inspire the modern horror renaissance.

by MATT STOKES | APRIL 19, 2018

SPOILERS follow for A Quiet Place (2018) and Signs (2002). 

The recent box office triumph of A Quiet Place makes it abundantly clear: Horror is having a moment. The overwhelming success of last year’s Get Out was the culmination of a half-decade of momentum building for low-budget, auteur-driven horror movies. Films with small budgets (Get Out was made for $4.5 million) that eschew expensive special effects and double down on the classic meat and potatoes of filmmaking to deliver movies beloved by audiences and hugely profitable for their makers. The outlet behind many of these films, Blumhouse Productions, kicked off this era in 2009 with Paranormal Activity, and its brand has become so trusted that the company’s Truth or Dare is being marketed as Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare—maybe the only instance in movie history of a production company making its way into the name of the picture.

It’s been said that A Quiet Place is very indebted to its predecessors of the micro-budget horror genre, especially It Follows and It Comes At Night. But director John Krasinski said he’s not that familiar with the horror genre, and instead was inspired by Jurassic Park. Which makes sense, because the movie A Quiet Place most closely resembles was directed by another Spielberg acolyte, M. Night Shyamalan—2002’s Signs.

More Than Superficial Similarities

It’s fascinating to watch Signs today and realize that the film, produced for $72 million (more than $100 million in today’s dollars), could easily be made today for less than a tenth of that. Like its small-budget progeny, Signs relies on its atmosphere for thrills—noise, shadows, and light all create a sense of dread, making the scares all the more effective.

The similarities between Signs and A Quiet Place are more than superficial. Both tell stories of a small family hunkered down on a farm, trying desperately to survive a hostile alien invasion. The importance of family and the all-consuming need to protect it is a dominant theme in both films. Both feature a four-person family—two adults, two children—and both families have experienced a recent death that haunts them throughout the film. And in both, the older child lives with an affliction (in A Quiet Place, daughter Regan is deaf; in Signs, son Morgan suffers from severe asthma) that plays a crucial role, as does its treatment.

In both films, preexisting conditions and unfortunate circumstances have laid the groundwork for the families’ current predicaments. This is an overt theme in Signs, plainly enumerated by Mel Gibson’s character:

People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck. More than a coincidence. They see it as a sign. Evidence that there is someone out there watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. A happy turn of chance… Deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. That fills them with fear… But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one… Deep down, they feel that whatever is gong to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. So what you have to ask yourself is: What kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?

This idea is explored in the most blunt way possible. Gibson’s Graham Hess character is a former Episcopalian minister who has lost his faith and left the priesthood after losing his wife in a horrific car accident. By the end of the film, it’s abundantly clear that everything in Graham’s life has led him to the movie’s alien invasion. Moreover, his life’s twists and turns have given him the exact tools he needs to protect his family. The aliens kill with a toxic gas, but Graham’s son has an asthma attack that blocks his lungs from taking in the poison (“His lungs were closed! That’s why he has asthma!” Graham says, just in case we don’t get it.). The aliens are vulnerable to water, so it’s handy that Graham’s neurotic young daughter has left giant, unfinished glasses of water throughout the house within easy reaching and throwing distance of the extraterrestrial foes. And Graham’s wife’s dying words urging his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) to “swing away” lead Graham and Merrill to the their final weapon: a baseball bat.I)Though one would hope that even people who didn’t hold the “minor league home run record” would realize a baseball bat prominently displayed on the living room wall mere inches away would be a handy weapon in a desperate situation.

Really Makes You Think…

Graham’s speech about people viewing coincidences two different ways may be elementary school-level philosophizing, but he isn’t wrong. Everyone can look at their life and see the role that chance meetings, rash decisions, and accidents have played in leading them to the present. “If my car hadn’t been broken and I hadn’t taken the bus to work that day, I would have never met my wife. Really makes you think,” any of us can say while nodding solemnly, reflecting on the choices we’ve made and the ease with which our lives could have gone differently. How one feels about this doesn’t even need to amount to a debate between reason and faith… it’s essentially a question of: Does this even need to be thought about at all?

Observation selection effect occurs when an observer inflates a subject’s significance simply because of its existence. In other words, an object is understood as important because it exists, but we don’t see all the objects that don’t exist. When we look at our own lives, we can marvel at how easily the significant moments could have gone differently, but that’s because we don’t see the millions of alternatives—all we can see is what happened. If we could see the number of non-events, the event wouldn’t seem so remarkable. To study history is to realize it’s not possible to study the history of things that didn’t happen. To be awed by the role of chance or luck in life is to be awed that effects have causes.

Signs is in awe of effects having causes, because it means that a (Protestant Christian) god is out there, manipulating things, helping out. What Signs does not show is that that same god must not care enough about all the people offscreen who die… or the aliens.

A Quiet Place handles this more elegantly, because its action begins after its characters have already survived for a while in the world post-alien invasion. The aliens cannot see, but they have hyper-sensitive hearing, so people not wishing to be eaten must be silent at all times. The Abbott family of A Quiet Place has managed to survive for so long because they have a preexisting advantage: The family is fluent in sign language because their daughter is deaf. This gives them the ability to communicate with each other and organize in a way that would be necessary to survive any catastrophic situation. This ability is not attributed to supernatural interference—the family has just managed to survive because they have skills that allow for survival.

The reverse of observation selection bias could show a parallel family in A Quiet Place, about to die because it cannot communicate with each other, thinking of all the random luck that led them to not having a family member who is deaf and necessitates the rest of the family learning sign language. Or it’s like you thinking, “How remarkable it is that I’m not a fish.”

The broadness of the message and its religious undertones are part of why Signs is sometimes dismissed among Shyamalan’s filmography. It’s often cited as the beginning of the end for him (until his recent resurgence working with Blumhouse and within the small-budget framework that is an ideal fit for him)—after being branded as the thriller-with-a-shocking-twist guy, he kept misfiring by trying to give audiences what he thought they wanted from him. But Signs deserves to be talked about in the same breath as Sixth Sense. 

The marketing of Signs did a good job playing with audience expectations after the twist endings of Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. The trailers and posters emphasized the crop circles in Graham’s corn fields. What could they mean? Being aware of Shyamalan’s prior films and the promotion for this movie actually enhances the early sequences, already soaked in dread, because the audience is on edge looking for something that’s not quite there.

Brilliant Filmmaking Using Brilliant Marketing

The film opens with Gibson’s character being jarred awake. His daughter is screaming in the distance, but not loudly enough to have woken him. Why did he wake up like that? As Jonathan Franzen wrote in another work from the era, The Corrections, there was just something in the air. “Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety.” So soon after 9/11, this was a widely shared feeling. Something really bad is coming.

That dread permeates the film. The family’s dog barks at the cornfield. The baby monitor’s making weird noises. The phone rings and the caller hangs up. Graham wakes up and his four-year-old daughter is staring at him (and at the viewer).

By the time the aliens attack, the Hess family has barricaded itself inside the house as if preparing for a hurricane. The movie makes incredible use of sound effects to suggest the aliens’ presence—the dog is barking; there are heavy, thudding footsteps on the wooden porch that encloses the house; the dog has stopped barking. Footsteps thud on the roof. The family notices that they’ve forgotten to board the attic door closed. Of course they have… they don’t know what they’re doing! As Graham tries desperately to hold a door closed against a murderous alien, he says, simply, “I’m not ready.”

They’re trying to pack a lifetime of emotional catharsis into a tiny period of time. Graham tells each of his children the story of when they were born and, in the movie’s best scene, they prepare an elaborate Last Supper that nobody wants to eat, because they’re all about to die. It seems like a good time to cry.

When the aliens get into the house, the family manages to keep them out of the basement and makes it through the night. The next morning, they hear on the radio that the aliens have left. Graham needs to leave the basement to get his son’s asthma medicine, but he has no idea if the aliens really have gone. Merrill ventures out of the basement and the camera sits stationary at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for… something.

Then the final confrontation with the last remaining alien ends when some water drips onto it. Yes, this is stupid; yes, it’s reasonable to object to aliens whose only weakness is water choosing to invade a water planet. But Mel Gibson will tell you from his sofa that there are two groups of people in this world: People who are bothered by things like that, and people who can look past them. To me, these aren’t aliens. They’re monsters—hostile, scary, mysterious. It doesn’t matter what they are, just that they are a threat.

Our God Beat Your God

The legacy of Signs is wrapped up in the silliness of the water reveal, the religious message, the movie’s “twist” (which is, I guess, that God is real after all), and the trajectories both Shyamalan and Gibson took following the movie. It was a huge hit in 2002—still the biggest movie Gibson ever starred in, and second only to The Sixth Sense for Shyamalan. But Lady In the water and The Happening were in the future for Shyamalan, and the world would soon learn that Gibson is a racist creep.

Stepping away from all of that and viewing the movie afresh, it holds up quite well. Its use of a small and self-contained setting (the house and the cornfields), its reliance on sound effects, and the grounded performances have all influenced the smaller-budgeted horrors and thrillers flourishing today.

And for all its blunt spelling-out-what-it-all-means, Signs is surprisingly subtle in other ways. Phoenix’s Merrill goes to an Army recruiting station, and later reads a pamphlet. Why? Because aliens might be attacking Earth, so he should at least keep joining the resistance on his radar. He never says this, but it lurks there in the background. And the way he and the kids look at Graham, with a mixture of admiration, sympathy, frustration, and resentment—somehow the two child actors, Rory Caulkin and Abigail Breslin, match a great actor like Phoenix in conveying all of this without saying anything. They don’t like that he left the church, they’re suspicious, but they respect him too much and know he is still grieving.

The movie concludes with Graham’s faith restored, although the movie thinks this is more profound than I do. He literally has evidence that God exists and is protecting him. So, no faith required. I’ve often wondered what the rest of Graham’s life will be like. Will he be looking around everywhere for signs? Will he feel invincible? Or will he feel crippled by the absence of agency and free choice? Does he convince himself his son is the messiah? I also can’t help but thinking, once again, about the aliens, and why God didn’t look out for them. Maybe they have their own God.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

I. Though one would hope that even people who didn’t hold the “minor league home run record” would realize a baseball bat prominently displayed on the living room wall mere inches away would be a handy weapon in a desperate situation.