Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in the bang; only in the anticipation of the bang”—a filmmaking principle director M. Night Shyamalan has adopted with exquisite success in 2002’s Signs. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a small-town ex-minister whose family already has enough to deal with—primarily, the recent and tragic death of Graham’s wife, and his subsequent doubts—when 500 foot crop circles begin to appear in his cornfield. “Anticipation of the bang,” increases as other inexplicabilities surface, like circles appearing suddenly all over the world, and strange behavior from the local animals. The larger question, however, is not whether aliens exist, or even whether our director can effectively put us through the frightening experience, but whether Graham can recover the faith necessary to guide his family through yet another crisis. This question becomes as central as the satisfying suspense, and makes Signs a welcome and substantial counter to the usual array of exploitative suspense films.
Make no mistake: this is a scary movie—scary enough, in fact, that it deserves its PG-13 rating and is probably not appropriate for younger children, especially as it depicts young children frightened and endangered. Unlike The Sixth Sense, however, Shyamalan does not depend on the creature/ghost/alien for the bulk of the terror. Rather, throughout most of the film he pulls out the old Hitchcock tricks, taking the viewer right to the encounter, and then cutting the lights, moving the camera, or switching to a reaction shot. The idea is that the suggestion of something frightening engages the imagination, and the viewer will create something even more frightening from his or her unique conception and fears—and it’s wildly effective.
Admittedly, the “bang” here is more explicit than we’d find in a Hitchcock film: by the end, Shyamalan abandons some of that restraint, and the pay-off to all the anticipation includes some straight-ahead frightening images. To move the film away from standard Hollywood horror, however, Shyamalan frames the whole story inside a very profound and sincere struggle with faith. Graham’s doubts are understandable and bring up both important questions and important answers. Technically and thematically, Signs encourages us to be aware of what’s going on in our minds—because we may be surprised.