Signs’ birthday party scene has gone down in history as one of horror’s most chilling moments. We break down how it earned that title.
Signs was a part of director M. Night Shyamalan’s early trilogy of consistent hits, along with 1999’s The Sixth Sense and 2000’s Unbreakable. Each movie was chilling and memorable in its own way, but there’s one scene in particular that makes Signs a consistent standout from Shyamalan’s filmography — the birthday party scene.
The 2002 film is a classic alien invasion movie. Signs follows the chaos that ensues after farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) finds crop circles carved into his fields. Strange events start to happen around the world, signifying that aliens are responsible for everything. Graham, his children, and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) hunker down at the farmhouse and experience the terror of the aliens firsthand.
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The birthday party scene is one of those early events across the world. After the crop circles appear on their land, Graham and Merrill are understandably spooked. Merrill falls asleep in front of the news and wakes up to a chilling report from Brazil. A father is filming what appears to be a normal children’s birthday party, but suddenly, without warning, an alien clearly strides across the screen.
The simplicity and amateurish nature of the way this scene was shot is one of the reasons it’s one of the scariest scenes in any modern horror movie. It’s filmed with a hand-held camera, evoking the immersive and claustrophobic nature of found-footage movies. The scene is meant to be filmed by a father at his son’s birthday party. His camera shakes as he runs to keep up with the children, dashing to a window at the front of the house. As the camera struggles to find its focus, so does the audience. Then suddenly, a figure unexpectedly appears just a few yards outside the window. The audience is so focused on figuring out what exactly is going on that the appearance of the alien catches them off guard, making it a true jump scare.
Then there’s the alien itself. The creatures are the villains of the film. Usually, a horror movie unveils its villain in a dramatic fashion following a lengthy build-up. Signs decided to forgo this tradition and blindside the audience. Once the alien finally makes its debut, its stares directly down the barrel of the camera. That moment is probably what makes the scene so iconic. It’s pretty rare to see a movie’s antagonist stare down the camera, immediately challenging it. There haven’t been many horror movie scenes in modern cinematic history that have lived up to this memorable scene from Signs, and while it likely can’t be replicated effectively, it can be used as a boilerplate for how to properly execute a horror movie jump scare for other filmmakers.
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