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Signing Off
by Lucius Shepard
August 11, 2002

In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the dying words spoken by the evil Kurtz are, "The horror! The horror!" Cesar Vallejo, the brilliant Peruvian poet, ends one of his most powerful poems, "The Starving Man's Rack," with the words, "This is horror." Though the two authors are referring respectively to a spiritual bottomland and abject poverty, both are talking about essentially the same thing: the inescapable. That is the basic element of effective horror, be it fiction or film--the thing we cannot elude, no matter how desperately we try. The inevitable. The irresistible. Monster, disaster, occult shadow. Andromeda Strain or Bubba with a chainsaw. Whatever the horror evoked may be, it must have the aura of inescapability in order to be frightening, thus making it all the more gratifying when an escape succeeds.

It's unclear from listening to M. Night Shyamalan talk about his latest film, Signs, whether he intended to make a horror movie--he stresses the film's purported theme, faith and the nature of human spirituality. Whatever his intention, Signs has been advertised as a horror movie ("Don't See It Alone"); it indulges in the conventions of the genre (sudden shocks, fleeting glimpses, ominous camera angles, et al); and it borrows its set-up and core structure from one of the most famous of all horror movies, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. In both Dead and Signs a group of people are trapped--hopelessly, it appears--inside a Pennsylvania farmhouse, while outside, evil creatures are attempting to break in and kill them, creatures whose incidence is not localized but part of a worldwide crisis. The salient difference between the films is that the zombies of "Dead"--though brain-dead--succeed in killing almost everyone in the house; whereas in Signs, though capable of crossing interstellar space in a massive fleet that parks itself above over 400 cities and of creating enormous crop circles on every continent to guide their pilots, the aliens are incapable of breaking into a root cellar. They simply cannot solve the problem presented by an ax wedged beneath a doorknob.


I think not.

In addition, the sole alien who manages a confrontation with the beleaguered family is beaten into submission with a baseball bat wielded by Joaquin Phoenix, cast here as former minor leaguer, Morgan Hess, the brother of Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). The bat slots nicely into Shyamalan's thematic structure yet scarcely qualifies as the weapon of choice when one is trying to dispatch a technologically advanced being who, along with his fellows, is harvesting humans for--apparently--food. Nor does it strike me as plausible that such creatures might successfully be locked in a pantry, or that Iranian peasants would be the ones who discover that aliens dissolve in water, as if their flesh were constituted of freeze-dried soup. And it's downright stupid to think that a baby monitor would be able to tune in communications from alien ships.

Despite these and various other humungous logical gaffes, there are a few things to praise about Signs. The idea of portraying an alien invasion by focusing on one small corner of it makes a nice change from such overblown cosmic scopefests as Independence Day. The editing is excellent, as is the cinematography. The acting . . . well, forget the acting. Mel Gibson used to be an ordinarily inept actor who looked good to women from the rear; now he's become a terrible actor who is starting to acquire (both front and rear, I suppose) the baffled, wrinkled countenance of an incontinent bloodhound. But it is as a horror movie that Signs must ultimately be judged, and as such it flunks every test.

Once Shyamalan isolates Father Hess, his brother, and two cute 'n spunky kids in the cellar, we expect to see alien incursion after alien incursion, walls giving way, weird ooze seeping up through the concrete, mechanical probes, each menace more chilling than the last, fended off by extremes of human ingenuity and valor. All we get is a rattled door, the sound of glass breaking upstairs, footsteps, and alien fingers groping through a ventilation grate. You may not fall asleep, but neither will you jump out of your skin. The characters, however, do fall asleep, taking long naps during the assault on their home--this dissuades us from any notion that their straits are dire. The director tosses in a potentially fatal asthma attack in an effort to raise the stakes, but that speaks poorly of his imagination. Signs is the third Hollywood film this year, the second this summer, in which a child in the throes of a severe asthma attack inspires a parent to make a risky move in order to fetch medication. In a Stephen King novel the child would die--that's how you raise the stakes; but Shyamalan has not learned or has chosen ignore this lesson. Rather than seeking to generate more tension, he dissipates it by incorporating into his climactic scene one of a series of flashbacks that explains how Father Hess lost his faith (the death of his wife in a freakish auto accident being the inciting event), a reverie that also provides him with the clue that helps save his family, thus causing him--surprise! surprise!--to regain his faith. The New Age prattle served up by the good reverend is sugary and glutinous enough to stop Deepak Chopra's heart, and whenever the pace slows to permit a character to preach the script's everything-happens-for-a-reason claptrap, energy dribbles from the film.

After a promising beginning, Shyamalan's last two pictures demonstrate that either his talent is in decline or that unsatisfied with millions, he has decided to pursue the billions available to those who pander to the basest of cultural imperatives. In an age when politics and the movie industry--indeed, every marketable portion of society--have been joined in grotesque alchemical wedlock, who knows what heights he may achieve, what worlds he may conquer. One day the word Shyamalan may be branded on all our foreheads. It is for certain, judging by the predictability, the simplistic morality, the heavy-handed manipulation of Signs, that he's at least on his way to fulfilling the prediction recently made of him, to wit, that he will be the new Spielberg.

(Here a brief prayer may be in order.)

In the good ol' USA the horror genre keeps lurching along with the same-old same-old. Creature features, dumb devil movies, sentimental ghost stories, and teenage freak-outs, the majority of these films being of a quality suitable for evisceration on Mystery Science Theater. Jeepers Creepers, The House on Haunted Hill, and 13 Ghosts (a William Castle remake! Who'd a'thunk it?) celebrate the enduring Hollywood axiom that one can never get enough of attractive boys and girls lusting after each other and getting variously eaten, torn apart, and scared out of their thongs. End of Days, Lost Souls, and the unbelievably dimwitted Bless the Child, whose protagonists are saved in part due to a marathon prayerfest performed by a group of nuns, perpetrate the Catholic comic-book version of the struggle 'twixt good an evil: Balrog-like demons; ultra-suave guys who dress in black and start fires by snapping their fingers; Vatican hit squads; exorcists by the gaggle. And then there is the woeful legacy left by the single outstanding American ghost story of the past few years, Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense: whipped dogs like What Lies Beneath and Dragonfly, in which, slowed by glacial box office temperatures, Kevin Costner shows signs of sinking from public view into his own personal La Brea Tar Pit. There seems scant hope of anything vital happening in the immediate future. A remake of the excellent Japanese horror movie, Ring, is due out soon, but since it is directed by Gore Verbinski, the man responsible for The Mexican (the worst picture in the careers of both Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts . . . which is a hell of a statement), and stars a cast of unknowns, usually signaling an ensemble of hunks and hunkettes who once did a guest shot on Dawson's Creek or Felicity, one cannot be optimistic. So the horrorhead who is searching for quality must look elsewhere for gratification, and the direction that appears to offer the best chance for this is Far East.

The Asian horror movie reached its popular peak with Ring, a complex ghost story involving a psychic ghost and a cursed videotape containing disturbing imagery that visits a terrifying death upon whoever watches it exactly seven days after the viewing. Ring broke box-office records in Asia, generating a good sequel (Ring II) and a pretty fair prequel (Ring Zero). In the wake of this trilogy has come a flurry of horror films, some of the gross-out variety, like the zombie movie Versus and its more stylish genre sister Junk. But there have been a good many films produced in Asia during the last decade, particularly in Thailand, Japan, and Korea, that have strived for originality. One of the most intriguing is Uzumaki, which is currently making the rounds of film festivals and is likely to receive a general release sometime in near future.

Uzumaki means "vortex." In context of the film, vortex refers to every type of spiral form. As the story begins, the schoolgirl heroine, Eriko, comes upon her best friend's father engrossed in videotaping a snail--he has, according to her friend, Fhi Fhan, become obsessed with the spiral in all its incarnations. Over the space of some several weeks everyone in the small rural town where Eriko lives either is possessed by this obsession or becomes victim to a product of it. The most popular girl in Eriko's school begins to wear her hair teased into ornate spirals; another classmate falls to his death down the shaft of a spiral staircase; Eriko's father, a potter, turns a spiral pot for Fhi Fhan's father and falls prey to the obsession. Before too long, as Eriko and Fhi Fhan attempt to unravel the cause of all this, the consequences of the obsession grow still more bizarre. Fhi Fhan's father mutilates himself and contrives an anatomical spiral of his innards before giving up the ghost; crematory smoke forms an enormous sky-filling spiral at the center of which the faces of a newly dead husband and wife are seen; a reporter covering the story drives into a tunnel that proves to be the mouth of an endless spiral; two of Eriko's classmates are transformed into giant snails with spiral shells and take to crawling up and down the side of the high school. Fhi Fhan himself eventually twists himself into a living pretzel. Finally only Eriko is left.

Uzumaki's director, Akihiro Higuchinsky, a Ukranian-born Japanese hitherfore unknown to me, blends these materials into a unique black comedy, a cross between H.P. Lovecraft, Heathers, and French surrealism, without eschewing the staples of the horror genre--shocks, creepiness, tension, and, of course, the inescapable . . .

It occurs to me that I have both underestimated the fearful potentials of Signs--and been far too strict in my definition of the inescapable. I mean, short of death and taxes what can be more Orwellianly, inescapably dread than a system that ingests a talented artist, grinds him around, and excretes a purveyor of a product so slickly packaged, it causes the public to salivate uncontrollably at the prospect of having their brains oiled with bland toxicity and massaged to the consistency of Play-Doh.

"The horror! The horror!"

M. Night Shyamalan knows all about it.

And if Mister Kurtz were alive today, he might not need to stray so far from home to find his spiritual bottomland.