One of the biggest sleeper hits to stun Hollywood in recent times, the 1999 horror film THE SIXTH SENSE became such a large smash because of the many small elements in it that combined for a unique whole movie. M. Nyght Shayamalan, a writer/director who up until that film had not really produced anything of note, created an intelligent masterpiece of suspense and tension along the lines of Hitchcock and Spielberg. And unlike far too many horror movies made in the preceding twenty years, THE SIXTH SENSE avoids extensive blood-and-guts cliches for a moody atmosphere of psychological unease.
Set in Philadelphia, the film opens with Dr. Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) and his wife (Olivia Williams) celebrating his achievements as a child psychiatrist, an intimate night that is irrevocably shattered when one of Willis' former patients (Donnie Wahlberg) breaks into their house and chastises Willis for "failing him." Wahlberg shoots Willis, and then pulls the gun on himself.
Months later, Willis finds himself coming to the aid of a young boy named Cole Seer (Haley Joel Osment), a very moody boy with a secret and special gift. Willis tries to coax Osment out of his moodiness, and for a while his efforts prove fruitless. Osment, however, reveals that some of the kids at school think he's a "freak." And not long after that, he reveals to Willis the gift that he has and which is troubling him: He sees dead people. Willis becomes very engrossed in what is troubling Osment so much about that paranormal ability of his, even as his own relationship with his wife seems to be crumbling. Osment also has another problem of his own: his touchingly uneasy relationship with his emotionally disconnected mother (Toni Collette).
Willis helps Osment confront and control the troubling visions of the ghosts he sees in his mond, assuring him that even the seemingly bad ones want nothing more than his help, not his life or his gift. With Osment's problem solved, not to mention the easing of tensions between Osment and Collette, Willis goes back to Williams...and then comes the ingenious twist ending that Shayamalan springs on the audience.
THE SIXTH SENSE became a big hit for a lot of reasons. One is the relationship that Shayamalan develops in his script between Willis and Osment, both of whose characters connect quite well because of the problems each have. Another is in the scenes where Osment encounters the dead people, much like the Danny Lloyd character in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror masterpiece THE SHINING; these scenes provide good shock effects, punctuated by James Newton Howard's music, but without extraneous blood and gore. And, of course, there is that much-talked-about twist at the end in which Willis discovers why so many things in his life went out of whack after that shooting. Shayamalan leaves clues throughout the film related to this aspect, but it's not until the ending that these clues add up. It is the kind of twist ending that Rod Serling, no stranger to twist endings himself, would certainly have approved of. The slow, moody atmosphere will not necessarily appeal to the blood-and-gore crowd, obviously; but people looking for intelligent horror honestly earned will appreciate the unusual and unique nature of the piece.
Although it utilizes elements from metaphysical romantic dramas like GHOST, and horror masterworks like THE SHINING, CARRIE, and POLTERGEIST, THE SIXTH SENSE never feels derivative. Instead, Shayamalan combines these elements together into a unique brew. Willis and, in particular, Osment give sterling performances, as do Collette and Williams in individual support. The end result was not only one of the most unique box office hits of recent years, but arguably the last great horror film of the 20th century.
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Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older