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  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • Hollywood / 46m

M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs was an attempt to do a genuinely fresh take on the alien invasion formula, looking at it from the point of view of a farming family in Pennsylvania, with brothers Mel Gibson (plus his two children) and Joaquin Phoenix investigating strange noises and crop circles. It’s a bit daft but quite entertaining – the director still had a lot of credit in the bank at that time (which eventually ran out in the next few years).

James Newton Howard always brought his A-game for Shyamalan and it’s such a shame their partnership seems to have ended, because Howard’s A-game is about as good as it gets in modern film music. While Signs is not as grandiose as a couple of the scores that would follow in this partnership, it’s certainly a superior thriller score and one of the high-points of the composer’s career.

James Newton Howard

It opens with a particularly portentous, vaguely Bernard Herrmann-like main title piece – a three-note motif that dominates the score is introduced in an orchestral performance that can only be described as agitated – the brass reaches epic proportions and the only shame is that the credits weren’t stretched out a bit so we could have had more of it.

After that, the music settles down for a while – it is ominous music, leaving you in no doubt that there really is something nasty lurking around the corner. Just about the whole score is built on that three-note motif, usually heard either on the piano or the flutes. The use of winds is terrific – “Roof Intruder” is such an atmospheric piece. Only occasionally does Howard really go full-on into horror territory, such as the dissonant “Brazilian Video” where the outright terror really hits home.

“In the Cornfield” is outstanding, as the composer starts to reveal a bit of the beautiful theme for Gibson’s character which sits under that central motif, and explores some supernatural suspense territory, demonstrating how much dramatic weight can be carried by relatively simple music – the piece is soft and contemplative for much of its six-minute length before ending on a particularly spooky note (literally).

I love “Throwing a Stone”, which gradually builds in intensity (representing Gibson’s character’s mental state) with that now very-familiar three-note motif doubled on piano and flutes this time as the piece reaches its climax; then things really hot up in “Boarding Up the House”, Howard producing masses of tension while musically depicting the family’s increasing desperation. Absolutely beautiful music opens “Into the Basement”, an ironic portrait of domestic bliss, but of course this doesn’t last and with an explosion of horns, things turn dark – for the remainder of this piece, mostly in a somewhat understated way still, but that doesn’t last…

First up is the huge “Asthma Attack”, with a cacophony of brass leading into full-on, conventional psychological horror music: the little motif seems to be swirling around inside your mind now, even as light starts emerging from the dark. “The Hand of Fate, Part 1” blows that light right out again – a rumbling dissonance leads into a reprise of that glorious brassy music from the main titles in spectacular fashion, with some huge action music near the piece’s end. Then in part 2, Howard finally unleashes that big theme hinted at earlier in full, bringing a wonderful closure to film and score.

Signs is a very easy score to appreciate while watching the film but I suspect anyone coming to it cold would wonder what all the fuss is about – it’s a bit of a slow-burner, but once it hooks you, you keep coming back. While repetitive, the length of the album means this is never an issue and I’m perfectly happy to sit and listen to it over and over again. It’s not one of those grand, multi-thematic works like Howard’s best scores in the fantasy genre (including The Last Airbender for this director) but it is absolutely one of his greatest film scores, going on a vibrant and compelling dramatic journey. It’s world-class, perhaps the composer’s masterpiece.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. JIm (Reply) on Saturday 6 March, 2021 at 17:03

    You know I am glad Signs is getting some love because I really love JNH’s score writing. I find that in Signs you can follow the movie just by listening to the music. Which in my humble opinion is high praise

  2. Adam Cousins (Reply) on Saturday 6 March, 2021 at 17:21

    Tremendous film and score.

  3. Amit Rubinstein (Reply) on Saturday 6 March, 2021 at 20:54

    So you decided to jump on Erik’s bandwagon with calling it Howard’s Masterpiece. Personally I still don’t get it. I mean it’s definitely impressive and effective music, but it would hardly squeeze into my top 20 of his.

  4. Ian Simpson (Reply) on Sunday 7 March, 2021 at 00:58

    I can understand why some don’t “get” this score as there’s rather more emphasis on suspense and atmosphere than with some of James Newton Howard’s other scores. But I’m with James Southall on this one, I decided to pick it up on the basis of the five star review and I found myself enjoying it straightaway. I definitely get that “impending horror round the corner” vibe from several of the tracks.

    My extensive film music collection is surprisingly lacking on the James Newton Howard front – it now contains Signs, Maleficent, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (the latter two co-written with Hans Zimmer) and that’s all. I think Maleficent is also excellent, but the Batman ones are rather hit and miss for me. I may well check out some of his other scores in the near future.

  5. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Sunday 7 March, 2021 at 13:20

    I’ve personally always considered Unbreakable his masterpiece, coincidentally another Shyamalan score, but this might be another one for the backlog. I probably should watch the film first, though.

  6. LightheWorld (Reply) on Monday 3 January, 2022 at 16:54

    ‘Hand of Fate Part 2’ tears me up every time, glorious! *****

  7. WhereIsIt (Reply) on Wednesday 27 July, 2022 at 03:32

    I fell in love with this soundtrack after seeing the film on release. My question is, why can’t I find it anywhere? No streaming services have it on n the US and a physical CD is like super expensive. Anyone know why?