Principal Cast : Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mischa Barton, Trevor Morgan, Bruce Norris, Angelica Page, Greg Wood, M Night Shyamalan, Peter Tambakis, Jeffrey Zubernis.
Synopsis: A frightened, withdrawn Philadelphia boy who communicates with spirits seeks the help of a disheartened child psychologist.
There are some who might argue that The Sixth Sense was both the best thing to ever happen to fledgling director M Night Shyamalan, and the worst thing to M Night Shyamalan. Not many people would realise that Shyamalan had previously made two other features before The Sixth Sense (they were 1992’s Praying with Anger and 1998’s Wide Awake), but they sure knew who he was after The Sixth Sense. Best known for its unexpected twist ending that took the world by storm, The Sixth Sense was a sensation at the box office in 1999 (coming in second place behind a little-known film called Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) and turned Oscar-nominated child actor Haley Joel Osment, who played creepy little “I see dead people” boy Cole Sear, into an overnight superstar. The film somehow struck gold by meshing horror and mystery for a mainstream audience, and the audiences lapped it up. I would argue the film is even better on a repeat viewing, once you know the twist, as to how Shyamalan and his production team layered in clues and hints for the final reveal that, in hindsight, should make many people slap their foreheads.
Bruce Willis plays child psychologist Malcolm Crowe, who, after recovering from a traumatic incident with a past patient, is brought on to treat young Cole by his mother, Lynn (a fantastic Toni Collette, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars) for what she suspects are delusions of some sort – the young lad can apparently see dead people, most of whom have suffered some kind of traumatic demise and who scare the absolute bejeezus out of the youngster so badly he suffers PTSD. The film is remarkably terrifying, thanks to Shyamalan’s incredibly evocative use of sound, old-school horror framing, and a sublime screenplay. The sense of omnipresent dread is present throughout the film, and it prickles the skin so often you’ll need a lie down and Valium afterwards just to calm down. While not ostensibly an outright supernatural horror film (the film is too restrained for that), The Sixth Sense plays like a prestige horror film due largely to the unassuming nature of the plot and the performances of both Willis, who is incredibly restrained as Malcolm, and Osment, who has that jarringly haunted look about him the whole time – I mean, so would you if everyone you saw day-to-day was dead. The film itself is a masterclass of direction particularly – I recall suggesting to my friend at the time it theatrically released that I predicted Shyamalan was going to become Hollywood’s “New Hitchcock”, assuming the mantle with such a powerful success. Perhaps overly indulgent or ignorant of me, I’m not sure.
I said at the opening of this review that The Sixth Sense was both the best and worst thing to happen to M Night Shyamalan, and I believe wholeheartedly this to be the case. Some directors find enormous success only after years of toil at the craft, even more never find it at all. When they do achieve success, some directors can’t deliver on their follow-up efforts and flame out quite quickly, disappointing audiences as they do so. Very few directors can take a breakout success such as this and parlay it into a career of continued success, and I think that while Shyamalan can (and to some degree has) do such a thing, the rocky road he’s taken to getting there came only because he was so successful, so quickly, audience expectations were through the roof. His follow-up to Sixth Sense, another Bruce Willis project in Unbreakable, was a modest box-office draw and regarded as a cult masterpiece in many circles, while alien-invasion thriller Signs tried for yet another twist ending with more problematic results; in trying to recapture the same magic as Sixth Sense, Shyamalan went to the well one-too-many times and audiences tired of his schtick. A spell in the wilderness with critical bombs After Earth and The Last Airbender, following silly efforts like Lady In The Water and The Happening, saw him return to form with minor classics The Visit and Split, but the director is yet to replicate the out-of-the-box success and acclaim accorded to the legitimate masterpiece that is The Sixth Sense.