That one scene in Signs...
When I mention M Night Shyamalan’s Signs, you may well think of exactly the same scene as I do. Joaquin Phoenix is sleeping in a chair. Awakening slowly, he stares back at the television screen he has been glued to since all these alien shenanigans started. The newscaster says “what you’re about to see may disturb you” . Phoenix shuffles closer to the screen, accompanied by the sounds of children on the new report. They’re all at a birthday party, and not too pleased. They run to a fresh window, allowing just the slightest shot between a hedge and a building. Then BAM! The alien walks from the hedgeside to the building. Everytime I watch that one scene, it sends a chill up my spine, unlike the rest of the movie which, whilst bad, is nowhere near as intense as this one scene.
So what is it about it that makes it such a highlight of the film? If you haven’t seen it before, you can watch just the scene here.
The way it’s shot
This scene is probably the most brilliantly constructed set piece in Shyamalan's back catalogue. From the very start,we know what’s going to happen, but we’re guided towards the same level of terror as Phoenix’s character faces through the framing, acting, and the final reveal.
The setting of the birthday party has the sweet irony beloved of many a filmmaker. The gaggle of children provides the perfect backdrop to increase the horror from the scene; their shrill screams somehow more believable than that of an adult actor in that situation.
As the camera moves, it is perfectly aligned for the moment of the big reveal. The camera itself is shaky, often shifts focus, uses digital zoom, and is made to be low quality, putting together the materials for a found footage film, and working them in a short, 30 second segment.
The way it sounds
Make no mistake, the fact that the children in the scene are speaking Portuguese is one of the most important elements that makes this scene so powerful. For a Hollywood release, to have a language unfamiliar to the majority of the audience means that there is a natural amount of ‘acting tone’ that is lost in translation.
By this, I would remind you of the scene in Inglorious Basterds, in which Christoph Waltz character is playfully acknowledging the American’s at his meeting who are all pretending to be Italian. Diane Kruger’s character had said that the Italian accent may sound unfamiliar to German ears. Apparently not to Waltz, who is able to show that he speaks better Italian than the American’s pretending to be Italian. It’s a weird scene. But the slight mannerisms and inflections which we know means someone is acting do not necessarily translate across either. As such, a room of children shouting in Portuguese is likely to have much more impact than if it had been a room full of American or British children.
The second point to make on sound is that the building drone throughout the scene is punctuated with a perfectly timed, and fulfilling sting that heightens the tension at exactly the right moment. It plays on the silence for just a second, before reintroducing the familiar sounds from the rest of the film. It’s really quite a generic way of doing it, but this is an example of when it is truly played to perfection.
The scene is truly very well put together, and, if you haven’t seen Signs, seeing the scene in context adds much more to the gradual build up throughout the film.