1999 was the year that the horror seemed to rise from the dead, thanks to the success of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT; unfortunately, that film was more box office phenomenon than a good movie. Thankfully, THE SIXTH SENSE came along to offer ample evidence that the genre’s resurrection was more than just a fluke. This film proved that a supernatural spook show, combined with solid drama, could appeal to a broad, mainstream audience, without downplaying the horror. The film benefits from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s low-key, realistic approach, which mixes the supernatural with sentimentality. Yet, it is much more than a mere manipulative crowd pleaser that struck box office gold by combining guaranteed commercial elements; it is actually a thoughtful, expertly crafted piece of entertainment. The film achieves both sophistication and scariness, without short-circuiting on its own ambitions. Best of all, the thrills are of the creep-up-the-back-of-your neck variety that work on the individual psyche, as opposed to the simple shock sort (which is Shyamalan would descend to in later work, such as LADY IN THE WATER), which really only works a receptive audience eager for cheap thrills.
Shyamalan achieves a brilliant sense of dread by completely convincing us of the everyday believability of his situations — and then, in the great tradition of ghost stories by M.R. James, allowing the supernatural to intrude gradually, thus creating a sense of the uncanny that had been long absent from the genre. Neither a self-reflexive comedy like SCREAM nor a contrived gimmick film like BLAIR WITCH, this is a film as strong in the characterization, dialogue and acting department as any mainstream drama from its year, including the Best Picture Oscar-winners AMERICAN BEAUTY.
Perhaps the story’s greatest coup is its amazing twist ending, which (like the ending of PSYCHO) turns out, in retrospect, to be no twist at all. In other words, the revelation makes sense of what preceded, without any cinematic cheats to keep you from guessing the truth; in fact, you realize that what appeared to be typical movie cheats are actually dramatically justified by what we learn at the end. The proof of this is that, like PSYCHO, the film works perfectly during a second viewing: you reinterpret events in light of what you didn’t know the first time through, and you realize that the story makes even more sense than you realized.
To list the film’s virtues would be to turn this review into a laundry list of almost every single element on view. Suffice to say that it well warranted its six Academy Award nominations. In addition, one should give credit to Bruce Willis for abandoning his movie-star action-hero persona in favor of giving a genuine acting performance. His scenes with Haley Joel Osment (which comprise most of the movie, you realize after the fact) feature some of the best screen chemistry every captured on film. And the cinematography of Tak Fujimoto, with its dark, imposing shadows and the recurring red motif, works to excellent effect.
It’s a shame that THE SIXTH SENSE walked away empty-handed on Oscar night, but don’t let that diminish your perceptions of the film’s excellence. THIS SIXTH SENSE ranks among the greatest ghost stories ever filmed.
THE SIXTH SENSE is a movie that rewards multiple viewings. It’s very clear that a lot of thought went into the making of the film, and it is fun to be able to go back and observe details that fly by during a regular viewing, even if you’re not obsessive about picking the film apart. This makes THE SIXTH SENSE a perfect candidate for a film to own on DVD. It’s been released on disc in a few different versions; unfortunately, none of them includes a director’s audio commentary. On the plus side, the Collector’s Edition provides lots of interesting extras.
The picture is enhanced for widescreen TV sets. If you don’t have a widescreen television, you need to adult the aspect ratio on your DVD player to get a letterboxed image; otherwise, you will be seeing a squeezed image. The Dolby sound works wonders for the spookiness of effect, bringing out James Newton Howard’s score and the sound effects as well.
Bonus features include storyboard to film comparisons, deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, two television spots, and several featurettes that cover topics like “Rules and Clues.” In this segment, the filmmakers discuss the rules of the afterlife, which had to be followed so that the film would make sense on a second viewing. These rules, along with clues dropped as to the truth about Dr. Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) set up the film’s surprise ending. (For instance, when Dr. Crow takes a seat with his wife at the restaurant, he does not pull the chair up to the table; the chair remains motionless.)
M. Night Shyamalan provides introductions to the deleted scenes, discussing what they were intended to achieve and why they were ultimately dropped. The deleted material is quite good when taken on its own, but its deletion clearly served the best interest of the movie.
Shyamalan also provides a brief interview to introduce a clip from a home movie he made when eleven years old. The writer-director expresses interest in making movies that enter into the cultural consciousness, becoming part of the shared experiences of millions of people around the world. (In retrospect, this sounds a bit like the first sign of the hubris that would lead him to cast himself in LADY IN THE WATER as a writer whose work will save the world.)
Despite the lack of audio commentary, the Collector’s DVD gives a good glimpse into the making of THE SIXTH SENSE. The chapter stops are very convenient when you want to pinpoint a particular scene or shot for close inspection. The interviews are entertaining, and the picture and sound quality make this film almost as frightening in your home as it was in the theatres.
NOTE: The subsequent Two-Disc Vista Series DVD includes all the bonus features from the Collector’s Edition plus several additional extras.
THE SIXTH SENSE (1999). Written & directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Anthony Tambakis.
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