Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Feature of the Month: Contaminated Water and a Baseball Bat

I am late. I am very very late. I apologize for taking such a long time to write my portion of our October feature series on favorite Halloween movies. I've actually never celebrated the holiday and don't really like horror movies, per se, but, never fear, for I have an angle! I happen to quite enjoy "suspense" films. There's just something about being on the edge of your seat knowing that something's coming . . . I think that M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most interesting filmmakers of the past 10 years, and a new film from him is an event. One of my favorite films of his is 2002's Signs. The film's strongest aspect is its consistency. When I first watched it, aside from being completely freaked out, I marveled at the fact that I knew that every single shot had a concrete purpose and had been chosen specifically by Shyamalan. He certainly isn't the first person to approach his craft with such attention to detail, but it was the first time that I recall noticing it in a film.

The single most thing that I admire about Shyamalan as a filmmaker is his restraint and use of atmosphere. Instead of taking the "easy" road and popping out every five seconds with a BOO! moment, he does something much harder. He creates an environment where, although you constantly anticipate him frightening you with a BOO! moment, he can pick and choose exactly when and where to use them. Think of it as a sort of consistent feeling of being creeped out, without actually having a concrete reason. This, I believe, is infinitely better than what has become standard practice for scary movies today. The trend toward showing everything on screen and leaving nothing to the imagination is, let's just be honest, completely lame. Think about it, how many films have been made recently (mostly of the torture porn variety) in which there were a ton of blood, guts, and shocking moments, but ended up failing to engage the audience? Now, I am at a loss here, because I don't watch those kinds of films, but I truly believe that the best and, indeed, scariest, films involve more of what you don't see vs. what you do see. The mind, after all, is the most terrifying of all things.

Another thing that I admire about Signs is the sneaky way it's about so much more than it appears to be. On the surface, the film is about a rural family that discovers crop circles in their fields, comes to the realization that the circles signify an imminent invasion by an alien race, and tries to stay alive during the invasion itself. On that level alone, it's an enjoyable film, and very satisfying too. What truly makes Signs soar, however, is the fact that it's not really about aliens, crop circles, and things that go bump in the night at all. Signs is about one man's loss of faith and the way that he finally comes to terms with it. This plot could have been couched in any number of scenarios, and directed by any number of directors. Shyamalan, however, is the only guy who probably would have set it in the middle of an alien invasion, and the film is all the better for it. Even when the alien is finally shown on screen, it's either seen quickly, in shadow, or reflected in the family's television set. It wasn't until I watched the "making of" featurette that I got a good look at the alien for the first time. It's pretty scary-looking, too. It's a testament to the strength of the screenplay and the complex characters that Shyamalan created that an alien movie can get away with not really showing the alien.

A lot of folks think that Shyamalan's recent films have been inferior to his earlier work. I tend to disagree, holding the position that The Village suffered from the one of the most misleading marketing campaigns in cinematic history and Lady in the Water suffered from a lot of ill-deserved malice. I admit that I haven't seen his most recent film, The Happening, just yet. I am squeamish, after all . . . one of these days, I'll do it. Unfortunately, while I've enjoyed most of his films, (except for Unbreakable. Great ending, but the rest of the movie? Eh.) I've found that they don't do well on repeat viewing. It reminds me of hearing a great joke more than once. The first time, it's hilarious. The second time? Not so much. Despite that, I'll never forget the first time I watched films like Signs and The Sixth Sense. To paraphrase one of the greatest lines of dialogue ever written: "We'll always have those crop circles."


Peter Wagenet said...

It's good to hear someone speak some reason when it comes to Shyamalan.

Adam said...

I agree completely, Peter. For some reason, the critical and popular success that Shyamalan enjoyed from 1999-2002 has resulted in a huge backlash. I'm not really sure why, either.

As I said in my post, I liked both "The Village" and "Lady in the Water." I understand some of the backlash against the former, because of how poorly it was advertised. It was billed as a truly terrifying film, and it just wasn't. Instead, it was a period love story with some suspenseful elements. It was good for what it was, but it wasn't the film that it had been advertised to be. However, that's the fault of the advertising campaign. With "Lady in the Water," I just don't get it. I think it's a good movie, simple as that. I know that some people thought it was egotistical of Shyamalan to cast himself in a role that could be considered messianic, but I still don't feel that that warrants the kind of backlash that it received.

I hope that people can once again be fair to him and his work in the near future. He's a natural filmmaker, and those don't come around every day.

Megan said...

I am one of the few that loves lady in the water. I think it's a fairy tale so it works for me. Do I kind of wich he recat his role and had an actor do it? Sure, but I think he's finalyl done with his cameos. If you saw The Happening I hope you noticed he's nowhere to be found...though that movie had issues.

Adam said...

I'm guessing you didn't read the article then, Meg. I said I hadn't seen "The Happening" yet at the end.

I too thought "Lady in the Water" was really good. I didn't cry or anything, but I was definitely moved.

Megan said...

NO I was at work, I had to skim and I missed that.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen his more recent work but I liked The Village best out of what I've seen of his films. Unbreakable could have been great but it always felt half developed to me. Your right about the ending though.

The scene where you see the alien walking by on the news cam is genuiely scary and had many people in my theater going when it first happened.

I think why people had a problem with it was because of the question why would an advanced species travel all the way to our planet when 70% of it was water which is toxic to them?