SIGNS (2002)

Never mind the water. It’s a weakness for David Dunn and it’s a weakness for this film (even more than it’s a weakness for the film’s extraterrestrials). Signs thrives on its spooky atmosphere and the strength of its performances. Cornfields at night are inherently creepy … throw in the unexplained phenomena of crop circles, and you’ve got the makings of a suspenseful alien invasion thriller, told on the smaller scale of a single remote farm.

For a long time, Signs was my personal favorite Shyamalan movie—until I rediscovered Unbreakable as an adult and Split came along and blindsided me. I could go on all day about Signs, but to keep the discussion here (and this already lengthy dissertation on Shymalan) manageable, let’s limit the focus to two key scenes in the film.

One is the Brazilian birthday party scene. Merrill Hess, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is in the closet with a TV. He’s asleep, but a news report comes on TV showing home video footage from a 7-year-old’s party. Observe Merrill’s body language: he sits up, takes notice, pulls in his chair, and leans in so close that we see the light of the TV on his face. He’s literally on the edge of his seat, and so are we now.

Shyamalan draws out the tension, letting it mount until the moment when we see a gangly alien come sauntering out from behind the bushes in the video. Whether or not you believe the special effects in that moment, Phoenix’s wide-eyed gasp and recoil sell how real the alien is. It’s a well-staged moment in a film that’s still eminently watchable.

The second scene is the one where Merrill and his father, Graham, an ex-minister who has lost his faith, are talking on the couch at night. In this scene, the TV is also playing, with the news showing mysterious lights in the sky. Mel Gibson plays Graham. This was his most commercially successful film as an actor. At the time, he was still a marquee-friendly name, but Signs would be his last film as a movie star before he pivoted to directing and his career was tainted by a series of ugly controversies.

Whatever you think of Gibson circa 2019, the couch scene is still one of the more memorable dramatic scenes he ever acted in outside of Braveheart. It’s a quiet moment where Signs lays out the meaning of its title. Offering comfort to his son, Graham talks about how people break down into two categories: those who believe in miracles and see signs everywhere, and those who believe no one’s watching over us and we’re alone in a world full of coincidences. 

The knife-twist comes when Graham reveals that he now belongs to the second category, ever since he watched his wife die. He paints a vivid picture of her final moments—how the nerve endings in her brain were firing, filling her head with seemingly random, or perhaps not-so-random, baseball memories. Cue alien shadow on a black TV monitor. “Swing away, Merrill.”

THE BURIED SECRET OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN (2004)

An important precursor to Shyamalan’s next film, The Village, is the marketing stunt gone awry that was The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan. This TV movie was a pseudo-documentary that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel just before The Village went into theatrical release. Billing it as an expose, one that Shyamalan did not approve of, Sci-Fi tried to pass it off as a real documentary with the Associated Press. However, the stunt backfired when it was revealed to be a hoax—engineered partly by Shyamalan himself.

Counting commercials, The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan was a three-hour affair. Today, if you watch it on YouTube with a sense of humor, parts of it play like a mockumentary … but there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of narcissism that runs through the whole thing. Shyamalan’s theatrics never seemed more self-serving than they do here.

The story broadly involves a documentarian, Nathaniel Kahn, who is given unprecedented access to Shyamalan, only to find himself increasingly stonewalled as he grows closer to unearthing the filmmaker’s titular “buried secret.” Writing for IFC.com, Matt Singer called it “a three-hour film about a guy waiting to meet [Shyamalan].”

When Kahn first encounters Shyamalan’s protective publicist, she gives him a list of pre-approved questions and lays down ground rules like, “Don’t make eye contact with Night while he’s directing.” Going off-script, Kahn begins conducting unauthorized interviews with various Philadelphia locals (and even some random celebrities like Deepak Chopra and Johnny Depp), whereupon he discovers that Shyamalan drowned in a pond and was dead for thirty-five minutes when he was young. Hence the hydrophobia of Unbreakable and Signs.

As if that weren’t enough, the documentary would also have you believe that Shyamalan has had a legit connection to the supernatural ever since his near-death experience put him in touch with “the other side.” He literally “sees dead people.” (One of them is a boy named Henry who drowned in the same pond.) This is why his very presence seems to attract a murder of crows, setting off audio malfunctions and other technical difficulties.

As he traipses through the woods on the set of The Village, the camera zooms in on Shyamalan like Bigfoot. Fans wait outside his home, hoping to make a Shyamalan sighting. They talk about him in chat rooms and accost him for pictures in pool halls, where the beneficent Shyamalan goes down among the people, like Jesus himself. Interview subjects refer to him as an “old soul” and equate him to “a shaman for modern society.” Yet one anthropologist warns us, “If circumstances are problematic, that very person that is revered and seen as a healer or visionary can come under attack.”

As it turns out, these words would be ultra-prophetic for Shyamalan’s own film career.

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