Why ‘The Unborn’ Has The Greatest Jump Scare Ever
The Unborn is a 2009 horror movie about a young woman who fights a spirit that is slowly taking possession of her.
David S. Goyer is all over the board. A screenwriter and director, he’s been behind a few highly acclaimed sci-fiction and superhero movies, including Dark City and the Christopher Nolan Batman series while also attached to a few reviled box office blockbusters, such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the 2009 horror film, The Unborn, which he wrote and directed. And it’s this last one that I want to just spend a little bit (okay, a lot) talking about, especially about a jolt early in the story that I think is one of the best ever made. Period. It’s a ridiculous movie, I’ll make that clear, but hot damn, this is one terrific scare.
Let’s start with a definition, one that probably seems obvious but maybe deserves a little clearing up. The ‘jump scare’ is a trope in films employed to lull viewers into a sense of calm before unleashing something entirely unexpected, typically with a frightening image accompanied by a sudden, jarring bump in the soundtrack. It can be traced back far in cinema but is generally regarded as a modern device, begun in the late 1970s and taking hold in the following decade when the ‘slasher’ movie exploded onto screens. Think of Brian De Palma‘s 1976 classic Carrie, when all seems over and poor Sue Snell (Amy Irving) – the music soft and cueing the final moments – is laying those flowers on the grave when up from the ground pops a bloody hand. Yikes.
Back in those days, the jump scare was used relatively infrequently, saved for the end when say, it seems the bad guy is dead before suddenly waking up, seen often in the horror and thriller genres. Seriously. Everyone was doing it. It become so prevalent that it soon was expected, and audiences simply waited for it to happen. By the 90s, the jump scare started to spread about and grow within movies like weeds, striking not just at the end but at any unexpected time. Heck, even Steven Spielberg was doing it in Jurassic Park (remember that arm that plops onto Ellie in the fuse box room?).
The problem now is, well into the this new century, the jump scare is everywhere, splashed about a horror movie with no regard to its origin, appearing all over a story with some movies hitting beats a dozen or more times in a movie’s runtime. It’s exhausting and not just cliché but tiresome. The thing is though, they often work because we’re programed to fear the unknown and unexpected. Regulated by our sympathetic nervous system, we are jarred by unconscious actions to react to these moments with a fight or flight response, the body releasing chemicals that put us in a heightened state of stress. And even if we know it’s coming, we fall for it every time. It’s how modern horror thrives.
So with that said, let’s talk about The Unborn, and while I’ll try to avoid major spoilers, just know that some of this is gonna reveal plot points. The story goes like this: Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman) starts the film in a nightmare of sorts, seeing something bizarre in the ground, a fetus pulsing in the dirt, and right away, within a minute of the start, boom, we have our first jump scare when yup, the eyes pop open. We’re off to the races.
She’s then seen babysitting a couple of kids, a baby and a four-year-old. While she’s talking on the phone with her friend, thinking the kids are asleep, she hears on the baby monitor the four-year-old talking nonsense, something particularly creepy. She hangs up with her friend and goes upstairs to find the little tyke holding a pocket mirror up to the baby, telling it to keep looking. When Casey gets close enough – jump scare number two – the kid up and smacks her in the face with the mirror and says rather cryptically: “Jumby wants to be born now.” So that’s weird.
Later on, the friend on the phone tells her that she’s heard of a superstition where if a baby sees it’s reflection in a mirror before it turns one year old … it dies. (That’s not true by the way.) Meanwhile, Casey is continuing to hallucinate and worse, sees that little four-year-old all over the place, like a mini-stalker who doesn’t quite get the whole ‘try-to-stay-out-of-sight’ part of being one.
And thus we come to the moment. Deep breath. Now bear with me here because I know what the critics say about this movie, and yes, I mostly agree, that the movie is derivative and contrived and pretty much a lazy effort all around. The only reason I even gave the film a shot (and still do) is because, well, damn … David S. Goyer. He helped write Dark City. Do you know Dark City? That movie is like, one of the best ever made in the genre, a masterpiece of storytelling and mystery and just plain whacked out sci-fi bliss. Yeah, yeah, he also wrote Jumper, but we take the good with the bad.
Anyway – and remember, this is gonna get spoilerly – we see Casey at night in her bathroom. She’s in her skimpy underwear – a big check on the tickbox of horror trope must haves – and she’s looking in the overhead sink mirror at her eyes, which of late are changing colors. We get this enormous close up of her retina and pupil and it pulls back to darkness where Casey has turned off the light and exits the room. But wait …
She hears a knock from in the bathroom. Huh? The camera shifts as if now looking out from the bathroom and we get a long lingering (dare I say sexy) shot of her turning languidly back to the room. She takes a few steps forward to the camera and we bounce back behind her head and notice that the mirror is slightly jostling. We go back to her curious face for a moment before she reaches for the cabinet and swings open the mirrored door, exposing … yeah, bathroom stuff. Soaps, cosmetics, blah, blah, blah. Ha. We got fooled. A jump none-scare if you will. Also notice that every label is turned away. No product placement here folks.
She fiddles about with the contents, confused and then closes the thing again and starts to leave, but before she’s even out the room … knock, knock, knock. It’s back. She spins around once more and heads right for the mirror, flipping it open, expecting nothing and yet this time … well, yup. A jump scare. A good one. A well earned one. And let me tell you, the first time you see it, good golly, you better not be holding a bowl of buttered popcorn in your lap because they shall be jettisoned off said lap with great earnest and velocity.
I won’t say what she sees, but it’s pretty freaking terrifying and honestly, credit goes to Goyer for setting this up and executing it with supreme skill. First of, Yustman is used to perfection, a young, attractive girl in tight white undies, of which Goyer gives us a good solid look, rendering us already off kilter. She’s got her boyfriend in her bed in the next room, they’ve already had sex, and we’re still thinking about that, Goyer keeping us focused on her body rather than the story. He follows the formula well, keeping us lulled into a quiet moment, her curious eye condition what he has us considering when she leans into the mirror, the thought of a bit of horror right out of our minds. Then comes the knock and yes, it triggers the first stages of concern, the jump scare initiated and our flight or fight just thinking about kicking in. He then defuses that after she opens the mirror and discovers nothing, and so we immediately relax, thinking, “ha, well that’s over, he got us.”
When it starts up again though, we know it’s coming of course, and here’s where the science of it all makes jump scares so effective. Goyer blatantly signals that yup, get ready, the jump scare is here, people. He played us the fool the first time and now, no way … we are definitely not going to let it happen again, and surely if Casey opened that door and nothing was there, oh hell, the movie would just plain suck, but Goyer doesn’t disappoint and instead delivers exactly what we expect. It’s a bombastic jump scare dressed up in all the accoutrement a good jump scare needs, including a booming musical punch and a chorus of children screams. It’s horrifying. And we knew it was coming. We knew it. And yet still, even then, we flip out of our damn heads.
I love this moment. I seriously do. Horror movies are generally a bland genre for me and even The Unborn as a total movie experience fails to really work, but I could watch Casey open that cabinet all night long and feel that delicious burn of fear every time with great satisfaction. It’s one of the best jump scares ever made. A great cinematic moment.