I’ve spoken before about my love of atmospheric horror, of those rare film scenes that get under your skin using nothing but suggestion and subtlety to evoke a feeling of overwhelming dread. The next scene I’d like to feature is a prime example of this, a scene that is simple but devastating in its chilling effectiveness.
The excellent Pang brothers film The Eye (2002; I shouldn’t have to warn anyone against bothering with the vastly inferior American remake) is one of the standouts of the Asian horror renaissance that began sometime around the mid-1990s. It is also one of the newer films I wanted to discuss, because it is a sterling illustration that not all modern filmmakers are content to rely on visceral shocks or over-the-top computer-generated imagery to deliver their impact.
The premise of The Eye is straightforward, I daresay even unoriginal: Mun is a classical musician who has been blind since early childhood. Upon receiving a corneal transplant, she gets a little more than she bargained for; namely, the ability to see ghosts. Did I mention that the ghosts she sees are also portents of impending deaths? Yeah, that too.
As I was researching this writeup, I discovered that I am absolutely not alone in singling out one particular scene as one of the scariest in cinema; if you have seen the film, you know the scene I’m referring to.
Elevators make fairly frequent appearances in horror films and thrillers, perhaps because many people, including me, find them at least a little unnerving. You are, after all, confined in a tight metal box that could conceivably trap you in the limbo between floors or suddenly send you plunging into the basement to your doom. Added to this is the unease we often feel when we are forced into close quarters with strangers. The elevator scene from The Eye takes all our rather mundane anxieties about elevators and ramps that shit up into the stratosphere.
Mun has returned to her apartment building and is waiting for the elevator, as you do. The door glides open, but when she peers inside, she is confronted with the eerie sight of what appears to be an old man in pajamas, standing in the back corner with his face turned toward the wall. She glances nervously up at the CCTV cameras and sees that the clearly occupied elevator is actually empty, leading her to the obvious conclusion that the man she’s seeing has shuffled off his mortal coil. Wisely, she decides to wait for the next elevator, but as she stands there, a young couple blithely rushes past her and into the ghost-o-vator, unaware of who they’re sharing the car with. The couple looks at her strangely as her terrified gaze flickers from them to the CCTV cameras and back again. The door glides closed.
The next elevator arrives. Mun peeks apprehensively into the car and makes another check of the cameras. This elevator appears to be wraith-free, so she reluctantly gets on board. There are tense close-ups of her hand pushing the floor button, and of her wide, frightened eyes. The elevator begins to climb. Ever. So. Slowly. Mun is still intensely nervous, almost expecting the inevitable.
And soon enough, her fears are realized. A hazy reflection appears in the steel wall of the elevator. It’s the old man. His back is still to her, which makes the whole thing a thousand times creepier. She knows he is back there, and she is visibly petrified, but she resolutely does NOT turn to look. She just stands there, rather stoically losing her shit as the old man glides behind her, back to back. There is a creepy shot of the man’s bare feet hovering inches above the floor behind her, and then the old man begins to turn around, unbearably slooooooowly, and we see that there is a horrifying CANYON where half of his face should be, and then he’s gliding toward her and his toes are just about to touch the back of her ankles and GAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!
Sorry, I had to stop the video for a second.
Okay, I’m all right now. Moving on.
So the elevator door opens and she sprints right the fuck out of there and goes tearing down the hall, as you would. She gets to her door and frantically tries to get in, but her key won’t work, and then she realizes that in her panic she’s gotten off on the wrong floor. She goes bolting toward the stairwell and stumbles up the steps, passing a little boy in a baseball cap who’s on the landing. When she reaches the top of the stairs, she turns to look at the boy, who suddenly runs toward the window and jumps right the hell out.
This scene really hits all the right notes: There’s the tight, tense closeups of the terror in Mun’s face, the flat bluish-silver light the whole scene is washed in, the trapped feeling of helplessness and of wishing the elevator would HURRY UP AND GET TO HER FLOOR, the languid menace of the old man as he drifts unhurriedly behind her, the slow reveal of his frighteningly disfigured face, the creepy details of the metallic reflection and the eerie floating feet. There’s also the kicker of the scene, the incongruity of the decidedly un-creepy little boy inexplicably jumping out the window after the main danger has apparently passed. It all adds up to one of the most perfectly realized scary scenes in modern horror cinema, and a shining example of the principle that sometimes, less is more.