Few horror movies really frighten me these days. But alien horror? Even those of lower quality than most shipments me in a frenzy of fear. That’s why I dive deep into the subgenre.
Welcome to “aliens frighten Me”. A look at alien horror movies on a case-by-case basis. This month we study the scary crop circles with M.Night Shyamalanit’s Panels.
What is it about : Panels was the fifth film of Shyamalan’s career and one of his most popular. Fresh off the success of The sixth sense and Unbreakable. Yet just before it upset the movie gods and unleashed a colossal shitstorm of epic proportions with its ending at The village.
To the simplest Panels is about a family unit including characters played by Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Abigail Breslin (his first film appearance) and Rory Culkin finding themselves at the center of an alien attack.
However, Panels has plenty of moving themes as Graham (Gibson) is a retired preacher struggling with his faith after his wife is suddenly killed by a driver (played by Shyamalan) who falls asleep at the wheel. there are several of them Panels unpacks about finding yourself in the impossible situation of being in the throes of extreme grief while also being responsible for caring for a family. All of this and the film still manages to end with a Night of the Living Dead-barricading the house in style as the aliens show up personally, at their home. Like they’re selling fucking Omaha steaks.
Why it’s scary: Shyamalan is noted as saying that the scariest part of the movie wasn’t the aliens but rather a good man losing his faith. I have however checked with my personal sources and can confirm that it is still the aliens. A scene in particular? One of the five scariest moments in the movie (for me); the birthday party scene.
Shyamalan uses footage found at a time when a group of children in Brazil capture one of the aliens on a camcorder. The footage is experienced through Merrill’s (Phoenix) point of view as he watches TV in the closet (you know, so the kids don’t get obsessed). Merrill rushes to the TV and begins hilariously yelling at the kids to get moving; “VAMINOS CHILDREN, VAMINOS!” Then it happens. The number one jump scare of my entire life. For the first time in the movie, we see one of the aliens in all their glory as they cross the street.
It’s not the appearance of aliens per se, it’s the sudden shock of seeing an alien in the middle of the fucking street crawling like Michael Myers looking for his contact lens. I literally jumped out of my place in the theatre. And it’s not just visceral scares (there are maybe only four in the whole movie), but rather impending doom. Something Panels manages to do extraordinarily well is to give audiences every conceivable sight of an alien invasion.
The worldview comes as the constant news shows us alien craft hovering over the entire world, with the news anchor’s voice becoming more and more desolate.
We get a small-town view of such a situation when the family takes a trip to town trying to clear their minds. From the teenage girl at the pharmacy wanting to confess her sins before the end of the world, to the small bookstore with only one book on aliens (left there by mistake), to the personal vision of the local army recruiter on the situation. The whole trip to town was a very Stephen King moment for Shyamalan, creating an added layer of contained panic. A town going about its daily business in the face of possible extinction because they can’t do anything but talk about it among themselves.
Most impressively, we get the custom perspective of an alien invasion in the family farm scenes. Starting with a slow build (the crop circles, the alien on the roof, the baby monitor picking up alien signals) and ending with a full alien home invasion sequence. Could you imagine being on a farm in the countryside at night awareness hostile aliens trying to force the passage on foot? Give me zombies anytime.
Finally, we find ourselves throughout what Shyamalan himself found most frightening in the film…..the loss of faith. For me, it’s not the religious aspect but rather a father who knows with certainty in his heart that his family is going to die that night and that there is nothing that will save them. The Last Supper dinner scene is heartbreaking, chilling, and a masterclass in acting from everyone involved. As much as aliens in horror scare me, the thought of losing my helpless family scares me even more.
Where it lands: Panels is one of my ten favorite movies of all time for all the reasons listed above. More than anything else, it’s so… weird. From rhythm, to dialogue, to weird acting. It feels so different from any other movie.
It’s also one of the few Shyamalan films that wasn’t everything. this divider. The film achieves an above average “Fresh” score from audiences and critics. Even if there are of course undoubtedly those who do not appreciate it.
M. Night will always be a polarizing filmmaker but one wonders if Panels is not a place of comfort for him in his CV. I know it’s a heartwarming movie for me. Which probably seems odd because it scares me. Watching a movie every year for twenty years will take away some of the benefit. A little, at least.