Hey, remember when everything M. Night Shyamalan did was beloved and awesome? Here is where it started. In the harrowing days at the end of the century, future RevSF co-conspirators Shane Ivey and Kenn McCracken saw The Sixth Sense. They were never heard from again. Wait. Wrong 1999 movie.
1999 may be looked back on as the year when ghost stories got scary again.
For years, ghost stories have been ignored or just plain done wrong in mainstream media. They were romanticized with Ghost and trivialized with the effects-heavy Poltergeist and Elm Street movies, made glossy and gory and predictable. In either case they seemed fit only for Frighteners-style spoofs; they were campfire stories, and in the age of the first-person shooter they were no longer scary even to children.
The summer of 1999's dose of horror did not begin as auspiciously as it turned out. The Haunting was the most Kruegerized ghost story on record, taking its lessons as a movie from the worst in the genre. That its source was one of the best ghost stories around only sharpens the irony. But then came The Blair Witch Project. Not many people left that laughing. They left the theatres shaken, sick and shell-shocked, and not just from the Dramamine-worthy camera work. Blair Witch reminded us all that ghost stories are about fear..
Hard in the wake of Blair Witch came The Sixth Sense. It avoids the glossy schtick of The Haunting and the raw horror of Blair Witch. It directly explores the nature of the fear it elicits and the themes behind ghost stories themselves. It brings viewers back to what ghost stories, especially modern ghost stories, are all about: blindness to the threat, the powerlessness of ignorance, the fearful mystery of a closed door, and the bitter pain and frustration of loss.
It opens with a critical error: the name of Haley Joel Osment is buried in the opening credits. Osment plays Cole, the child whose gift or curse of seeing ghosts is the subject of the film, and that should have been given top billing. Even more so than Bruce Willis' "Finally, he decides to act!" turn as the child psychologist, Osment's performance drives the film.
He is utterly convincing in the role of a sensitive, troubled boy, showing the loneliness and pain of fatherlessness and the incisive perception and surprising maturity of the gifted. It is a credit to Osment's instincts that these moments are just as moving as his "showcase" scenes of terror at the ghosts or his breakthrough moment of revelation to his counselor ("I see dead people.").
Bruce Willis is given top billing; this is unavoidable, but Osment makes it unjust. Even so, Willis is capable of a surprise or two, and Sixth Sense is one of them. Playing naturally off the boy's performance, Willis allows himself to be part of an ensemble, not the wisecracking superhero for which he is best known. Willis portrays a counselor who prefers the controlled intimacy of therapy to the vulnerability of genuine closeness, but he struggles with his patient's troubles with genuine compassion. He is a father figure with the impossible task of choosing between those who need him.
The supporting characters are equally strong. As Willis' long-suffering wife, Olivia Williams does not have much to work with; certainly she had a deeper role as the teacher at the heart of the madness in Rushmore. Here she mostly defines Willis' character, but she remains sympathetic and disarming. Toni Collette has a far meatier role as Cole's single mother, struggling to raise a troubled child amid the stresses of two jobs and suspicious social workers.
Sixth Sense is as stylishly atmospheric as The Haunting is merely stylish. Subtle hints and tricks drive the movie, never revealing too much, while visuals are purposefully incorporated into the storytelling process in a way most movies ignore. In an early scene, Crowe and his wife are reflected in his award for Best Child Psychologist in Philadelphia or something while discussing their history and their plans; does that symbolic award contain the totality of their relationship? Statues become analogous to ghosts in the permanence of their state and emotion. The style can be a little heavy-handed at times, but it is a refreshing effort.
Other visual elements are more subtle, and a few are less so. In one clever scene, a rapidly-evaporating handprint gives away the presence of ghosts by default, since the boy never lifted his hand to ransack the kitchen. Lighting and music are more obvious: the lighting is dreary, contributing to the sense of the boy's despair, while the music tends toward the traditional string-section build-up to heighten suspense. Fortunately, director M. Night Shyamalan mostly knew when to shut the music off and let the story tell itself.
Sixth Sense delivers plenty of chilling ghostly scenes. The boy's harrowing reactions are convincing and believable. For all its atmosphere and terror, though, Sixth Sense is not a horror movie. Exorcism by psychotherapy made an intriguing premise, but it is much weaker as the focus and the key to Cole's salvation. Any answer it gives will seem too pat, and that is the trouble with the end of the movie. Unfortunately, there were few alternatives.
Using a child as the focus draws the audience easily into the character's fear, but it also paints the story into a corner: it must either deliver a happy ending with all the trimmings, or it must take the far more disturbing and difficult route of portraying genuine horrors befalling a child. Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King succeeded in the latter with The Shining, and in different ways between the film and the novel. Sixth Sense comes to that point of horror, but it blinks. It steps back and takes a safer route, and the finale loses the impact that the first part promised.
Still, Sixth Sense is effective as a supernatural and psychological thriller. There is as much suspense in watching the stars come to grips with their fears and sorrows as there is in their confrontations with ghostly threats. The film is not as powerful as it could have been, but the lead performances make it more than worthwhile.
* * * * * *
By now, we're all sick of "I see dead people" jokes, and we all watched and felt a little bad when Haley Joel Osment sat smiling graciously when Michael Caine won Osment's Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
Anyone who hasn\'t seen the movie or heard the plot twist (SEMI-SPOILER The first time Osment appears on screen, Boy George can be heard singing "The Crying Game." END SPOILER) is living under a rock, and is deaf and blind.
That writer/director M. Night Shyamalan created one of the most refreshing and compelling movies of 1999, a feat in itself, given the state of the film world at the end of the century, is undisputed yesterday's news.
The Sixth Sense really deserves multiple viewings, and it's nice to be able to pause or rewind when you think you've found something. Additionally, the movie is really enjoyable.
Unlike other movies with twists, this one doesn't rely on the surprise, but instead offers it as dessert at the end of the five star meal. I preordered the DVD the day it was announced, thinking I was getting a movie with the requisite trailers and maybe director commentary. What a pleasant surprise to find 75 minutes of supplemental material!
So you watched the movie two hundred times. Why should you own the DVD? Anyone who saw the movie 200 times in the theater at $8 a pop is probably not going to ask, but here's why: Extras! Extras! Extras! There are interviews with a few of the cast and producers, an interview with composer Howard Shore, a storyboard-to-film comparison. I could go on and on. And I will:
The best parts of the DVD are the deleted scenes, of which there are four, and the RULES AND CLUES section. In the latter, editor Andrew Mondshein discusses techniques that were used to visually cue the viewer to what was happening, or what was going to. The deleted scenes are a section I usually run screaming from, because scenes get left out for a reason, but this time they were quite appealling. It's easy to understand Shyamalan's reasons for not including them, but they don't feel like cutting room floor material.
I've made too many DVD purchases on whim, just because I liked the movie or have fond nostalgia for the film. The technology is available to make the films as magical as they are in the theaters, while adding something for the hardcore fan as well, yet too many studios ignore this and cut and paste the film to disc. Fortunately, this is not the case with The Sixth Sense, nor is this a case of hours of bonus crap added for the sake of filler.