2002-08-08 / Arts & Entertainment

Supernatural "Signs" Is A ‘Rip Roaring Yarn’

By David Germain

Supernatural "Signs" Is A ‘Rip Roaring Yarn’

Mel Gibson (center) and his family encounter extraterrestrials in the supernatural thriller “Signs.” 			   Frank Masi©Touchstone PicturesMel Gibson (center) and his family encounter extraterrestrials in the supernatural thriller “Signs.” Frank Masi©Touchstone Pictures

By David Germain

AP Movie Writer

Atmosphere goes a long way in an M. Night Shyamalan film, even so far as to elevate a rather nebulous scenario — really more a situation than a story — into a rip-roaring yarn.

Writer-director Shyamalan's "Signs" is the creepiest, scariest movie to come out of Hollywood at least since last summer's ghost tale "The Others," maybe even since Shyamalan's own "The Sixth Sense" three years ago.

Mel Gibson delivers one of his best performances, playing a recently widowed farmer and ex-man of the cloth dealing with

crop circles carved in his corn fields that portend the arrival of visitors from the skies.

Gibson gets excellent support from Joaquin Phoenix, Cherry Jones and child actors Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin.

Shyamalan, who cast himself in tiny roles in "The Sixth Sense" and its follow-up, "Unbreakable," takes on a somewhat larger part in "Signs" and displays real dramatic chops.

But the real star is the muted sense of foreboding Shyamalan musters from the start, which he maintains and gradually intensifies as "Signs" unfolds in cloistered manner mainly within the confines of a farmhouse far from the nearest neighbor.

The hardest form of horror to create is the psychological kind, where the filmmaker implies terror and imminent menace while revealing only bits and pieces on-screen, a glimpse of a limb or a shadowy figure, a scratch at the door or a bang on the other side of a wall.

Shyamalan continues to stake his claim as a worthy successor to Alfred Hitchcock, crafting nail-biting suspense without resorting to the bombast of explosions, glitzy computer effects or other trappings of modern Hollywood. And like Hitchcock, Shyamalan infuses "Signs" with a healthy dose of droll, dark humor.

Even James Newton Howard's music is reminiscent of the ominous Hitchcock scores written by Bernard Herrmann.

Gibson plays Graham Hess, a Pennsylvania farmer who recently hung up his minister's collar after his faith in God was shaken by his wife's death in a car accident.

Graham now goes through the motions, still playing dutiful father to his children (Culkin and Breslin) but quietly, bitterly rejecting his past role as a spiritual counselor for local townsfolk.

His spiritual limbo is mirrored by the psychological malaise of his brother, Merrill (Phoenix), a minor-league baseball washout whose home run records are offset by his records for striking out.

"It felt wrong not to swing," Merrill confesses, a wry bit of foreshadowing that helps set up the film's climax and Shyamalan's intriguing exploration of fate, divine intervention and the interconnectedness of seemingly random circumstances.

Jones is a sympathetic presence as a police officer who's witness to tragic moments that befall the Hess family. Shyamalan plays a neighbor who's the catalyst for Graham's fall from grace and potential resurrection.

Graham's crisis of faith is a fairly black-and-white affair, without a great deal of nuance. Shyamalan essentially knocks this decent man down, then hurls a fire-and-brimstone Armageddon scenario at him in the guise of a sci-fi invasion that either will restore his belief or cost him all that he holds dear.

As in "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," Shyamalan ladles on religious imagery in "Signs." The notion of the purgative powers of water is especially prevalent.

While the celestial intruders ostensibly are beings from another planet, they really are old-fashioned biblical demons sent

to rekindle Graham's lost conviction that goodness must prevail.

The film's closing image, while predictable, is a quietly stirring affirmation that along with life's cruelties comes hope of better things.

"Signs," is rated PG-13 for some frightening moments. Running time: 105 minutes.

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