Arguably the key horror movie of the nineties, and the film most responsible for lifting the genre out of the doldrums in which it languished for most of that decade. THE SIXTH SENSE is best known, of course, for a twist ending that inspired people to see the movie twice, which explains why it was such a monster hit.
THE SIXTH SENSE was the third film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who (if Michael Bamberger’s 2006 book THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES is to be believed) was certain of its enormous commercial potential from the very start. Shyamalan wrote the script with the intention of setting off a bidding war among the major Hollywood studios and selling it for a multi-million dollar sum. He succeeded in both aims, and ended up making the film at Disney with a superlative cast: Bruce Willis, Toni Colette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg and young Haley Joel Osment (at the time best known for appearing briefly in FORREST GUMP).
Released in August of 1999, the movie became an immediate sensation with its iconic twist ending and catchy “I see dead people” tagline. Unfortunately the film also kicked off a trend of horror movie twist endings that quickly got irritating—see THE OTHERS, FRAILTY, SPIDER, FEMME FATALE, IDENTITY, SECRET WINDOW, THE MACHINIST and most of M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent films, many of which are burdened with very un-SIXTH SENSE worthy twists.
The Philadelphia-based child psychologist Malcolm Crowe is shot in his house one night by a deranged former patient. A year or so later Malcolm, having apparently survived the shooting, has a new patient: 9-year-old Cole, who lives with his divorced mother and exhibits severe emotional problems. It’s clear that, among other things, Cole is harboring a particularly burdensome secret.
As for Malcolm, his marriage seems to be falling apart. His wife never pays attention to him (nor, for that matter, does anybody else except Cole) and appears to be having an affair with a hunky co-worker.
After freaking out in school and again at a birthday party, Cole finally tells Malcolm his secret. Cole claims he sees dead folks “walking around like regular people” who “only see what they want to see” and “don’t know they’re dead.” An understandably skeptical but sympathetic Malcolm advises Cole to talk to the ghosts he sees and ask what he can do to help them. Cole does just that when a girl ghost appears, which leads to him solving the girl’s murder when it’s revealed, via a videotape, that she was poisoned by her mother.
Following this Cole finally reveals his secret to his disbelieving mom, specifically an encounter he had with his long-dead grandmother. Malcolm, meanwhile, attempts to talk to his wife, leading to a secret Cole never told him…
This film seems destined to be best known for its twist ending, which is well integrated and surprising. True, there are quite a few elements that don’t add up, in particular the properties of the film’s afterlife, which are never explained but apparently quite involved (how, for instance, does a ghost change clothes?). A further distraction is Bruce Willis’ spacey and detached performance as Malcolm, although the aloofness does make sense when one knows the twist.
For the most part M. Night Shyamalan plays fair with the viewer, and in the process creates an extremely absorbing viewing experience. Directorially the film exudes assurance and economy (a welcome respite from the undisciplined music video inspired filmmaking popular in the nineties) and isn’t nearly as affected as Shyamalan’s later work.
The proceedings lose some of their fire in the final third, which is increasingly formless and meandering (at least until the twist). There’s an excess of gooey sentimentality—as Cole’s mom Toni Collette cries in seemingly every other scene–in place of the old fashioned spookiness of the first hour, and I feel the film is less potent for it.
THE SIXTH SENSE
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Barry Mendel
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Editing: Andrew Mondshein
Cast: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Trevor Morgan, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Tambakis, Jeffrey Zubernis, Bruce Norris, Glenn Fitzgerald, Greg Wood, Mischa Barton, M. Night Shyamalan