Signs: M. Night Shyamalan’s Field of Screams still thrills 20 years on

Signs (M, 107mins) Directed by M Night Shyamalan *****

Not much happens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania

The townsfolks’ version of an international incident is when a foreign-accented woman starts complaining that her brand of cigarettes isn’t stocked by the local store.

A major kerfluffle is when an old lady starts getting her revenge on the towns’ youth by spitting on brand new skateboards.

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One of the pillars of the community is Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former priest who lives on his farm with his two children and former minor league baseballing brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix).

Having lost his faith and his sense of humor with the death of his wife six months ago, Graham is in no mood for gags when he discovers a crop circle carved into his corn field overnight.

Mel Gibson plays Signs' Father Graham Hess.

Supplied

Mel Gibson plays Signs’ Father Graham Hess.

Despite his brother’s belief that this is the work of a bunch of nerds who never had a girlfriend, the prospects of it being a local’s handiwork seem remote – “most of them can’t take a piss without wetting the front of their pants”, the local cop says of possible suspects.

Searching for an answer to the mystery, the Hess’s find their world turned upside down when 18 other circles appear around the world within 72 hours.

Some believe it’s just a way to sell sodas, but others are on the verge of mass hysteria, believing the end of the world is nigh.

Signs wasn't just an alien invasion tale, it's also a great look at a family in crisis.

Supplied

Signs wasn’t just an alien invasion tale, it’s also a great look at a family in crisis.

Having scared us silly with The Sixth Sense, and un-nerved us with Unbreakable, writer-director M Night Shyamalan makes it a trilogy of terrors with this 2002 tension-building masterclass. With a well-written script, an economy of characters, and the now expected twists and turns, Shyamalan created a terrifyingly taut thriller.

Choosing to focus on the characters’ reactions, rather than what they are looking at, Shyamalan ratchets the tension up to No. 11, and never lets the audience go.

Hitchcockian in style (complete with cameo director appearance and James Newton Howard’s Psycho-esque score), Signs uses silence just as effectively as sound, and has a realism not expected in such Hollywood endeavors – if a lightbulb blows, we are plunged into darkness.

With a well-written script, an economy of characters, and the, by now, expected twists and turns, M. Night Shyamalan created a terrifyingly taut thriller with 2002's Signs.

Supplied

With a well-written script, an economy of characters, and the, by now, expected twists and turns, M. Night Shyamalan created a terrifyingly taut thriller with 2002’s Signs.

But this wasn’t just an alien invasion tale, it’s also a great look at a family in crisis.

Mel Gibson delivered one of his most powerful performance since 1996’s Ransom (arguably he hasn’t been this convincing since either), while Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin excelled as his progeny.

A masterclass in creating tension, Shyamalan’s “Field of Screams”– given his later travails, predictability and sometimes laughable conceits – now, two decades on, seems like it was the high-water mark of his endeavours.

Signs is now available to stream on Disney+.

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