Signs (Touchstone, 2002)

In The Green Man Review with Excellence in Writing Award (EIWA).

‘His review wins an Excellence in Writing Award for being, as his Editor-in-Chief called it, ‘Smashing, absolutely smashing.’ – Cat Eldridge, for The Green Man Review.

There’s a monster outside my room. Can I have a glass of water?

Signs refers, via the title, to the phenomena of crop signs.

Pictures are the best explanation, in this case, and there are plenty… Look at the formations in Wind Mill Hill and in Normanton. Or glance through some of the circles appearing in June of this year (there are some documented every month). Perhaps the most interesting glyph appeared beside the radio telescope at Chilbolton, Hampshire last August. It corresponds almost exactly (with certain notable changes) to the complex image of human DNA sent into space in binary code by NASA (1974) as part of the SETI project, using the Arecibo radio telescope (you may have seen that telescope site in the jungles of Puerto Rico in the film Contact).

There hasn’t been much media coverage of crop signs or crop circles since two elderly men claimed to have travelled about creating all the crop signs in the UK with a pair of boards, much less coverage of their retractions, contradictions, and descent into appeals to an ‘unknown force’ guiding their actions, etc. And the signs are becoming increasingly complex, much larger, and still produce (where not hoaxed) living deformation in the plant life and appear, on occasion, with creation times of twenty minutes or less, often deep in fields far from the UK that have no tram lines, making even large-scale participation in a hoax a dubious possibility. Still, the History Channel created a promotional man-made crop sign, as did the set of Signs. It has even become a pasttime of groups such as the one calling itself Team Satan, and also those that attempt to actually respond in some way to the phenomena. Clearly, there are crop signs that have all the earmarks of being manmade, and there are crop signs that are more of a mystery and differ in significant ways from the hoaxes, graffiti, prayers, and advertisements.

That is the opening question of the film…. What has caused a crop circle formation in a farmer’s field in Pennsylvania? It has to be a prank, but the stalks are bent not broken, and the event is attended by strange animal behavior, surreal visitations, and odd radio signals. And then… Crop signs, we are told, have been around for a long time, but there is an escalation… ’19 recorded in India in the last 72 hours’. Weird, right? That’s just the beginning. What are those odd lights in the sky?

Spoilers ahead. But don’t worry; you’ve seen these in other films already. It’s how they’re combined by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan that is interesting.

Signs is urban folklore, both as a monster movie and as science fiction. The film opens with old-fashioned suspense-movie music and jerky billing, ala The Twilight Zone. Then, just as it seems a banal look at a family farmhouse, a man sits up in bed, gasps. It’s a ‘where are the children’ moment. Right off, the film begins with a primal fear. Shyamalan has woven classic horror and suspense elements together and produced, regardless of the story, a real fright flick. He draws on the fear of what’s in the fields… in nature… in the dark… in the pantry… in the closet… in the sky… in the minds of our pets… in the invisible… ‘What is that sound, carried on the night air?’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘I’ll go see. I’ll go alone. Don’t worry.’ Since man has made stories and lore of what is out in the woods, in the wider unknown world beyond the cave, past the uncharted area on the map, in the deep deep waters of drowning perception… sleep, night, darkness, the limits of the senses…, since he has set out bowls of milk for things that might intrude past the firelight, into the day, into our waking lives… since he has made locks and bars for the windows and doors, and told himself it was only for brigands and soldiers… there have been certain consistent elements and themes to his nightmares. Shyamalan is good at realizing what these are and finding occasions for them in his story. His use of children has the double-edge of our ability to remember our own childhood fears and of our capacity for the very adult fear of something putting a hand out for the children in our lives. “There’s a monster outside my room. Can I have a glass of water?”

The monsters are deliciously creepy (pattering about in a Chucky kind of way), slightly camp (with even a blurred video clip modeled, surely, on the infamous 1967 Patterson Bigfoot footage), and even extremely camp (moving about in the last encounter like the cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad). There is an encounter with something in a pantry at which the whole audience, during an opening night viewing, screamed or gasped, to a cleverly-timed shot of startled birds in flight. Really! A claw under the door is just one of the lovliest treasures a monster movie can have. The element of wind, with the whispering, swaying, sometimes sickly rustling of vegetation it creates, and the voice-like tinkle of chimes, are effective as haunting backdrop. This is part of the return to classic horror techniques we saw in The Mothman Prophesies. The ticks of an old-fashioned clock in a silent house, waiting the coming of the late visitor, say ‘it’s only a matter of time, now’ over and over to those trembling within. Even the expected line, “They’re in the house!” manages to be some very scary shit by the time camera work and sound have created the mood of seige, with the cast huddling in the middle of a hall, emphasizing the inadequacy of the walls for protection and the ease of approach from any direction. The asthsma of one of the children underscores the claustrophobia, the fight for air, the tension. There’s a luscious allusion to The Blair Witch – the dropped flashlight and ankle level view, with a delicious (watch for it) Alice in Wonderland twist as the flashlight is picked up. Music seems right out of Halloween II. There’s a Cujo moment… trite, but choreographed convincingly. Most importantly… the viewer should prepare to levitate a few times during this film. There are some serious jumps in store.

There isn’t much weapons play: a butcher knife and a baseball bat. This isn’t Dusk til’ Dawn or Vampire$. No firearms, no crossbows, no squirt guns filled with holy water. Not a link of chain mail. The cornfields, besides being appropriate to the crop circle phenomena, are standard horror fare… the Children of the Corn movies, Scarecrow, even X-files Fight the Future. So, of course, there’s a wonderful horror flick moment when the viewer has to be bursting a blood vessel screaming internally, ‘DON’T GO INTO THE CORN!’ The UFO’s are right out of Independence Day and the Pentagon’s wet dreams, hovering over the world’s major cities in attack formation.

The tough but gentle female law officer (Cherry Jones is adequate in the role) is a film stereotype. You’ve seen her type in The Mothman Prophesies (Laura Linney) and Broken Arrow (Samantha Mathis). Gibson’s role is close to reprising the personality of his Jerry in Conspiracy Theory, and not just because of the subject matter. He’s a gentle character, a favored casting for Gibson in these days long removed from Mad Max. But unfortunately, his frailties in this role aren’t adorable. His character is both the cliche of the priest who lost his faith and left the church (and the towsfolk without a minister) when his wife died, and the stereotype of the ecclesiastic who doesn’t know how to be anything else: He burns dinner. He can’t pretend to be crazy or threatening without having those things explained. He doesn’t seem to know that paddywagons are no longer used by the police. Worst of all, he can do no more when his children are under attack, than board up the windows, hold them, and talk about how they were born, as horrible creatures are breaking into the house. Sure, it’s heroic the way he spends what may be his last moments to distract them with thoughts of beauty. But to give up so easily. He doesn’t even venture to grab a broom handle! It’s not only the terror that makes one squirm, but also the demoralization of a limp-wristed Father who does not know how to be a father.

Some of the emotional life of the film shines, even if the setting of grief is dull and underwhelming: Most of all, look for the moment that Gibson is stopping his son’s asthma attack; it isn’t too precious pablum; it is the most powerful statement of love in the film.

Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill–the brother of Gibson’s Fr. Hess) has the best adult role, and his subtlety reminds me of the oozing earthy comedy of Jack Black. Of the little girl, Abigail Breslin (this is her first film role), I heard “She’s cute.” from the seats behind me. She has that much sought-after movie-child cuteness. Rory Culkin pulls off a sentient older brother to Breslin, but isn’t that same source of “Awww…” that he and brother Macaulay have been in the past.

As in The Lost Boys, the children of Signs have a manual for figuring out what’s happening and how to deal with the monsters. In the former it was comic books, while in Signs it’s a pulp guide to extraterrestrials. In Signs, this device serves to ask the question, ‘Could there be some truth in all of that Fortean stuff?’ …same question that was the film Unbreakable. But it also draws on a stereotype… children know the details of things… they know myth, folklore, legend, fairytales… monsters… adults are bookless information-invalids, dependent upon the younger generation for information. The misbegotten cutesy-ness and infantilism of “A little child shall lead them.” Put this with the stereotype of the otherworldly, no practical sense, parent… Well, you get the picture.. As though books were as much a mystery to we ‘old folks’ as the internet is reputed to be. As an editor at GMR, an internet publication specializing in myth, folklore, legend, fairytales, and things fey and sometimes monstrous, I have to say that the stereotype is starting to rub me the wrong way. It isn’t cute; it’s just artless and boring. I like the point that fantasy and Fortean literature can open minds to new possibilities, and can be a rich impetus to strength, courage, and perseverence. I don’t like it when such a marvellous opportunity is portrayed as merely childsplay. There’s a similar stereotype, that doesn’t involve children, in The Mothman Prophesies.

This film is, in many ways, a collection of parts of other films with a Crop Circle backdrop… Truly, we can say with Merrill, “It’s like War of the Worlds.” And a dozen other flicks — some good, some bad. Rather disappointing <spoiler coming… yawn> is the “everything has a weakness” approach to driving off the nasties. In this case… what is that weakness? <sigh> Water. Yep. In War of the Worlds it was a virus. In Independence Day it was a computer virus. In V it was…? In this case, we are asked to suspend disbelief when aliens who fly around in cloaked space ships are invading a world 70% covered with a poison frightful enough that it scares them off in the end! And, since they’re picked up on an old baby monitor, used as a walkie talkie, we’re given to deduce that they communicate with radio signals. That’s right. Better not mess with us. We’ve got cellular phones and two-way satellite broadband. It’s just too much work not to notice these little flaws.

Also a potential disappointment for those interested in Fortean phenomena is that this film, and perhaps a couple of made for video knock-offs, lacking any substantive treatment of crop signs, will stand as ‘the crop circle movie’. There is, at least, some attempt at thinking through the matter, but it comes off more as thinking for rather than with the viewer. ‘Two choices’, we are told: ‘One of the most elaborate hoaxes ever created, or else, basically, it’s for real.’ Real, apparently, means ‘not man made.’ A hoax is, presumably, the only explanation if it is man made. Even that is dismissed without discussion… ‘How could so many people be in on it?’ And of course, there is the ad hominem, dismissing the issue outright: Call it Nerd Analysis… ‘stuff dreamed up and made into a club by guys who never had girlfriends to get other guys who never had girlfriends to join…’ Funny but, personally, I’d have liked to have seen the best examples of thought on the subject raise the bar a notch for intelligent films of this genre.

The ending is both Tarantino-brutal with cracking bones and dissolving flesh and Oprah-banal with quick psychological placebos. A mockery, really. It takes a line… ‘there are no coincidences’… and makes that a cheap point… about premonitions of the widower’s late wife. Sure, this is fairytale fare… one warning for each person not taking the journey, or about to take a different one… heed the warning when the time comes… but it’s just too badly hacked… even Joaquin Phoenix blows it… making a Bruce Campbell/Evil Dead face when they finally realize what’s going on, and grabbing laughter from the audience rather than the intended intensity. In fact, it’s right there in the climax that the whole film really begins to come apart. The dialogue at the end is strained; Gibson’s acting distintegrates, and the sights of pretty scenery and the music of ‘a bright new day’ are trite beyond trite. The priest puts his collar back on. The boy snaps out of it and says… “Dad, did someone save me?” The final line? Son… “I guess someone did.” Use these moments to sneak into the rest of whatever flick is playing next door. Whatever the ending will be, at least you might not vomit.

Signs, though truly worth at least a matinee ticket to experience the terror jolts on a big screen with surround sound in a dark room (sit away from the walls), is also unfortunately typical of the unfinished story that nonetheless appears before us in the theatre, albeit relying on delightful horror and some emotional depth, but shortchanging us on an actual plot. It builds and builds, and has no place to go. It hopes that showing the viewer a precious tear, and a grief overcome – even if cheaply – will stand in for a resolution or an ending. It’s about as good as horror flicks get these days.

A note about props: I noticed they were thoughtful; the wallpaper in a child’s room is that of a sky full of clouds and biplanes, even as something invisible fills the skies outside.

More information on crop circles can be had at The most popular site is probably The most organized, and so perhaps most useful, site is here, with an easy-to-reference history of crop circles, case histories, hoaxes, etc. For fun, be sure and look at the recentcat circles. The official film website is of little use unless you want some Paul Oakenfield mp3’s.

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