Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Horror Scenes from The Sixth Sense

(SPOILERS: The Sixth Sense)

Continuing my Halloween inspired analysis of scary scenes, today I’m going to look at a pair of scenes in Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan). We sometimes forget that this movie is actually a horror movie. And there are some terrifying moments in it.

The first scene I’m going to talk about is the scene with the ghost in the kitchen. It opens with Cole needing to go to the bathroom. This is a great premise for a scary scene – we can probably all remember when we were kids and needing to urinate, but being afraid to leave the safety of our beds. It’s a universal fear and we immediately identify with Cole.

We first know something’s up when we see the temperature on the thermostat drop. Then a figure passes behind Cole as he’s peeing, crossing like a blur in front of the camera. It’s a great moment of surprise – or maybe more accurately a startle. But it gets us not just because of the sudden movement and music sting, but because we’ve seen the thermostat drop and are anticipating something scary.

Cole realizes it, too. He walks slowly out of the bathroom, his breath misting in the supernatural cold. Someone is making noise in the kitchen. His mother? There is a long tracking shot as he approaches – building tension. He sees a female figure in a bathrobe. “Mama?” But when she turns it’s a ghost woman with bruises on her face who has slit her wrists. The woman is angry, yells at Cole (who she thinks is her husband). He flees to his little makeshift tent where he has religious figures and a flashlight.

A couple of particularly good things here: first, his hope that maybe it’s just his mother, which makes the revelation even more impactful. Then the brutality of the woman’s injuries has a strong visceral impact. Plus, her anger gets directed at Cole, making us fear what she might do to him.

A bit later in the movie Cole has another nighttime encounter with a ghost. He’s sleeping in his tent when he hears his mom call out for him. He runs to her, but it turns out she’s just having a nightmare. After comforting her, he returns to his tent… but something is wrong. Some of the clothespins holding it together have come off. And his breath mists from cold.

Notice this use of cold in both these scenes as a signal to indicate to the audience something scary is coming. The movie trains us as to the meaning of this. It’s a common horror movie technique. Jaws (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) does it with the duh-dum music. In Paranormal Activity (written by Oren Peli), I noticed how, by the middle off the movie, the audience got jittery every time the film cut to the shot of the camera that was recording the couple sleeping. The film had actually conditioned them like Pavlov’s dog to expect scary stuff when they saw that camera angle.

The Sixth Sense makes this explicit – at some point between these scenes Cole tells Malcolm that it gets cold when the ghosts are angry. (The movie also happens to use a more subtle directorial technique to condition us – the color red is only used on things touched by the supernatural. But that is probably not in the script.) If you’re writing a horror movie, you might consider what signals you can teach the audience to prime them for scares.

Back to the scene. Fearfully Cole reassembles the tent and crawls inside. But then the clips start popping off on their own and he realizes the ghost of a young girl is in the tent with him. The scary stuff has violated his secure space now. Putting danger in a place you normally feel safe is another way to really unsettle an audience. The girl throws up – as elegant as The Sixth Sense is, it does resort to gore and gross in strategic ways to frighten us.

Cole runs out of the tent, pulling it down after him. But since the kitchen scene, Malcolm has suggested Cole try talking to the ghosts. Malcolm believes they want Cole’s help. But when Cole asks, “How do you know for sure,” Malcolm’s response is, “I don’t.” It’s a plan fraught with danger.

But Cole works up the courage. He can see the cloth of his makeshift tent draped over the ghost’s head. He approaches slowly – again building tension – reaches out, and removes the cloth (requiring him to get very close). We’re on the edge of our seat – what will happen? The girl vomits again, but then says, “I’m feeling much better now.” Cole asks if she wants to tell him something, and the solution to Cole’s problem is found.

The Sixth Sense uses a masterful mix of slow tension building, startling surprises, and carefully chosen gore to freak out the audience in a very sophisticated manner. But probably even more important, it has great character work. We care about Cole and that gets us invested in the outcome of these scenes.

1 comment:

Dave said...

We really need to see the scenes, in question, as written in the script... Clearly they are well shot, acted and directed, but in order to really understand and appreciate the scriptwriter's art, we need accompanying examples of what they put down on paper.

Sheffield, UK