16 years ago, I had a formative experience: I watched the movie, Signs. I was a kid of divorce and the way I bonded with my dad was through horror. Yes, I was too young by most standards, but I’ve turned out fine. Every Friday night, we would hop in the car, drive to the local Blockbuster, and peruse the aisles for the latest horror releases. Once we made our choice, we would order pizza, grab some snacks and Pepsi Blue (yes, Pepsi Blue), and pop in a DVD. One of the most memorable experiences was on a Friday night in 2002 when we rented M. Night Shyamalan’s alien horror film, Signs. I was no stranger to horror movies as a nine-year-old, but this film scared me to pieces.
If there was an extraterrestrial involved, I loved it. I watched The X-Files through my fingers, devoured any books about UFO experiences I could find, and looked at UFO conspiracy theories online. Yes, I was a normal child, thank you for asking. So when Signs’ trailer was released, my dad and I immediately made a plan to see it.
For those of you not familiar with Signs, it was released on July 29, 2002 and was Shyamalan’s fifth feature film. It follows a farming family in Pennsylvania who discover mysterious crop circles in their cornfields. They come to find that aliens have come to Earth, and they aren’t friendly little green men. What ensues is a story of family and survival in the face of the unknown.
Mel Gibson (The Expendables 3) plays father Graham Hess. I won’t go into him much, because of Gibson’s awful past behavior. But, I will talk about a young Joaquin Phoenix (You Were Never Really Here), whose youthful and clean-shaven mark a time before he became weary of this world. He plays Hess’ younger brother, Merrill, who is an ex-baseball star who can’t get out of his hometown. Hess also has two children, Morgan and Bo, played by Rory Culkin (Scream 4) and Abigail Breslin (Final Girl), respectively. Each have their own quirks or traits that later come into play, like Morgan’s asthma or Bo’s need to leave water glasses around the house.
So what exactly scared me in Signs? I can’t name just one scene. Rather, it was a series of moments, and jump scares, that created a masterful suspense that I had ever experienced before (granted, I was 9). Instead trying to narrow it down, here are some of the film’s more terrifying moments:
Alien Leg in the Cornfield
Graham thinks that he’s chasing troublemakers in his cornfield, but what he actually sees is something much scarier: a quick glimpse of an alien. The alien leg in his flashlight beam has scarred me for life. I still can’t look at a cornfield without thinking about it. Despite preparing myself, since this scene is included in the trailer, the anticipation of seeing the leg was just as scary. This scene is part of what makes Signs so scary. Shyamalan only shows small parts and glimpses of the monster, letting your imagination run wild. Leaving you wanting more.
Knife Under the Pantry Door
Speaking of showing only parts of the alien, this jumpscare sent me flying out of my seat. Graham enters his neighbor’s house after learning he trapped an alien in his pantry. Naturally, Graham must see for himself. Instead of opening the pantry, he takes a kitchen knife and slides it under the door, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever is trapped. Ketchup, mustard, dish soap, no alien life here. Just when he’s about to give up, Graham gives it another look, only to have an alien hand shoot out and try to grab him. Fortunately, Graham has a knife and chops off its fingers.
Alien on the TV
Merrill watches TV in a closet, since Graham doesn’t want the kids seeing all of the alien news. As Merrill turns on the night’s broadcast, he sees footage of an alien walking through a kid’s birthday party. This is the first time that both the film’s world and the audience are seeing the aliens. While reminiscent of the famed Patterson–Gimlin film that supposedly captured Bigfoot on camera, it is still absolutely startling. Merrill’s reaction, screaming and jumping back, isn’t too different from what I did during my first viewing of Signs.
Alien On the Roof
What starts as the one of the scariest scenes also becomes the funniest scene in Signs. Bo wakes her dad up, saying there’s a monster outside of her window, as kids do. Graham is about to write her off, and then he sees a large silhouette standing on the barn roof. Queue loud gasps and me burying my head in a pillow because, unlike Graham, I know that’s an alien. Graham wakes up Merrill and says they’re going to chase off the creep. What comes next is the two men running around the outside of the house, screaming, “it’s time for an ass-whooping.” Really, the comedy is perfectly juxtaposed with a scene out of my nightmares.
Alien Shooting Gas in the Kid’s Nose
As Signs reaches its climax, an alien has entered the farmhouse and is holding Morgan ‘hostage’. Using its long fingers, it sprays a toxic gas into his nose. But, thankfully, Morgan is mid-asthma attack and can’t breath, which is probably the first time someone has been thankful for that. However, I was too stressed in the moment to remember that Morgan couldn’t inhale the gas. As the family fights the alien, all I could think about was if Morgan would survive. Don’t worry, Signs has a happy ending.
I would be remiss to not mention Signs’ soundtrack composed by James Newton Howard. The haunting strings moving into a cacophony of woodwinds and horns still gives me goosebumps. The score added to the film’s tension, making each scene even more terrifying as the Hess family tries to escape an alien.
While many of Shyamalan’s films are often met with harsh criticism, this is one of his better films. No matter what you may think about the director, Signs still had a profound impact on my young brain. Yes, we can admit the ending is cheesy in a way only Shyamalan can deliver. But, when it was time to go back to my mom’s house, I couldn’t even walk to my dad’s car — I had to sprint. I also couldn’t even handle the dark roads and have to squeeze my eyes shut the whole way home. It may not hold up as ‘scary’ 16 years later, but there is no doubting the power it had over me and how it brought my dad and me closer together.