I think that's one of the reasons I like M. Night Shyamalan's Signs so much. He so perfectly crafts his film to pull you into the story, make you care about the characters and keep you at the edge of your seat. He not only builds suspense, but knows how far to push before letting off with some sort of comic relief in order to maintain a very high level of interest and suspense. A stark contrast to this is Panic Room in which David Fincher does a great job of creating suspense, but pushes so hard on the suspense that there isn't any possibility to sustain that through the film. You get so tired of being so suspended for so long that ultimately the effect wears off.
But this should come as no surprise as M Night continues to show just how much of a master of cinema he is. In his films M Night spends so much time, so much attention on the little details: the colors characters wear, the way in which the camera moves from point A to B, the time that he spends on each shot, that he is able to craft films that do what many films can't, and that is engage an audience and hold them till the absolute bitter end.
One of the important things about Signs is that it shows that M Night Shyamalan is able to finally shirk off the expectation set by The Sixth Sense - that his films will go along and erupt in some surprise dramatic ending that changes the way you look at everything. This time around he takes a much subtler approach to the subtext of the film. While the characters go through quite a transformation, and at the end there ARE revelations about the characters, it's not the level of dramatic, shocking, earth shattering kind of revelation that many of his characters tend to go through. In Signs the suspense and the thrill really carry you throughout the entire film, rather than waiting and saving it up till the very end, and in the end it does really lead to a stronger film.
Getting to the performances of the film, I really felt that Mel Gibson did a great job as the lead. He is able to portray a father and convey that sense of connection with his children better than many other actors out there. I think that M. Night's real talent to direct children makes that an amazing fit. Both Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin do amazing jobs at creating the child's view of the experience. So you marry that with the view Mel Gibson provides and it's a very interesting blended experience: with both the father experiencing an event that's suspenseful and traumatic, and the children experiencing the same event from their perspective. Joaquin Phoenix, who I am not the biggest fan of, does a really solid job of being a very strong supporting actor. He compliments this story so well and provides a third real perspective on all the events that it gives you a real palette of people to be able to identify with. So from whatever your perspective is there are characters here who you can connect with, and that's really key to making this film work.
One of the interesting things that happened in this film is that M Night cast himself as one of the supporting players. At first when I saw him on the screen, I really didn't feel like he fit in. Part of that was the fact that Mel Gibson fit in so well, I had really bought him as the main character. So I had stopped looking at Mel Gibson as Mel Gibson and started looking at him as the character. I found it a little jarring when I saw M Night come on the screen, and immediately my brain said, "Oh, look, there's M Night!", so it was a little jarring. But after that initial impact, he did really fit in the film and did a really good job.
I think Signs lends itself to a strong comparison between M Night Shyamalan and Alfred Hitchcock. From the opening credits, you get the sense that you are going to watch a film that is in the classic style. The terror, the fright that you will feel will come from the things that you don't see, not necessarily from the things that you see. It's like in the Birds when Tippy Hedron is in the house, you don't know exactly how many birds are really out there - that's part of the terror of Signs. M Night is very conscious of creating a world where what you don't see is far, far scarier than what you do. I think that's why the soundtrack of this film is so very important; if you are going to see this film, you need to see it in a theater with good sound or you need to wait for DVD and really be able to enjoy the Dolby Digital 5.1 effect. So much happens offscreen and in the soundtrack that is so germain to making Signs work, that if you see this film in a theater with a very poor sound system you're not going to enjoy it.