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Hopeful Dysfunction: The Families of M. Night Shyamalan, Attack the Block, Heavy Metal, And More
The Bite #153

Hopeful Dysfunction: The Families of M. Night Shyamalan, Attack the Block, Heavy Metal, And More

March 23, 2021

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Hopeful Dysfunction: The Families of M. Night Shyamalan

By Justine Smith

Warning: there are spoilers for Signs (2002) ahead

Family is central to the films and horror of M. Night Shyamalan. Often told from a child’s perspective, his films can be understood as fairy tales where innocence is lost and regained. In a media culture steeped in irony and cynicism, Shyamalan maintains an unpopular earnestness even in his exploration of dysfunctional family units. He sees hope in people’s ability to change and grow. Often the horror of his work emerges when communities fail to heal and move on, where festering pain and increasing ignorance fill the gaps where love ought to be.

In Signs, Shyamalan plays on the tropes of the alien invasion film. A small but unconventional family unit; two adult brothers and two children live on a farm where a mysterious crop circle foreshadows a larger attack. The action unfolds under the shadow of loss, as the mother recently died in a horrific accident. Their father, Graham (Mel Gibson), has lost all faith.

This family unit, as with most in Shyamalan’s filmography, is not necessarily abusive. Evil is not a force to be defeated, though, to be sure, the hostile alien race still needs to be dealt with. The most potent moments of horror come early when the family dog no longer recognizes the children or at a family dinner where Graham loses his temper. These scenes ask us to look at the children’s performances; these are the moments they tear up and break down. The alien threat is abstract compared to the perceived destruction of their fragile family unit.

In the end, everyone lives happily ever, but the tension for the audience doesn’t feel wholly resolved. We imagine the ending that could have been where Graham’s persistent pain over his wife’s death would blind him to all the “signs” that would permit his family to survive. If he were unable to break the cycle of his trauma, his grief would have condemned them all.

There’s a certain comfort in living in fear and dysfunction. For characters like Graham, it’s familiar. It’s easier to give into cynicism than to open yourself up to new disappointments and pain. What he’s unable to see, at least at first, is that closing himself off to the world only portends more pain and death. For Shyamalan, being closed off from the world might be a natural response to suffering, but it’s also a destructive one.

The kind of pain that echoes and repeats itself becomes central to nearly all of Shyamalan’s horror. People are quick to roll their eyes at his “twist” endings, which often hinge on failures of perception, but it’s a feature necessary in the kinds of stories he tells. His characters, touched by trauma, lose touch with nature, loved ones and even society itself. As a result, they can’t see what’s right in front of them. They’re caught in cycles of pain and unable to see the obvious solutions or paths that will lead them to safety. In his films, salvation and ruin have the same origin point; the family.

Shyamalan’s films’ peculiar optimism lies in how his characters nearly always find their way back into the light. They learn from their mistakes and overcome the pain inflicted on them, or at the very least, open up doors that offer them the path to future redemption. Shyamalan sees people as flawed and fragile but not inherently evil. Even in the face of the end times, love and understanding have the potential to win out.

Justine Smith is the president of the Quebec Critic’s Association and also the programmer for the Fantasia Film Festival’s Underground Section. She’s a contributor for sites like Roger EbertHyperallergic, and Cult MTL, where she mostly writes about horror, documentary and new media.


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