Friday, October 10, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 9 - The Sixth Sense

 #9 (Tie) - 5 Votes

I usually have good instincts, when watching trailers for upcoming movies, of which ones are must sees for me and which are skippable. The Sixth Sense, however, was one of the exceptions; based on the trailer, which mostly consisted of Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment speaking to each other in hushed tones, I thought the movie looked like a ponderous bore being dumped in late summer by Disney. Also, I must confess that the line "I see dead people" made me giggle the first time I heard it. A few weeks into the movie's blockbuster run (fueled almost entirely by word of mouth, unusual then and almost unheard-of now), I gave The Sixth Sense a try, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was mistaken.

What impressed me most about The Sixth Sense, then and now, was how it worked as a throwback to classical ghost stories like The Innocents and Don't Look Now, relying almost completely on the hushed, chilly atmosphere M. Night Shyamalan was able to sustain for two hours for its scares. One of the reasons ghost stories are my favorite horror subgenre is that you don't necessarily need any special effects to be scary - if done correctly, a film can frighten its audience with the well-timed appearance of an actor in a space where they simply should not be. Shyamalan pulls off several moments like this, and though The Sixth Sense is a model of restraint, it nails its "Boo!" moments. Between it and The Blair Witch Project, it was a refreshing moment, after a few years where self-aware slashers dominated the genre, to see horror movies that relied on audiences' imaginations finding big success at the box office.

It was the film's twist, of course, that fueled word of mouth, and it's a good one, but it wouldn't have resonated the way it did if we weren't already invested in the story and characters. The performances are great all around - Osment is remarkable, of course, but it's Willis who has to carry the movie. He's one of the best actors around when he's invested in the material, and one of the dullest when he doesn't care; here, you can tell he cares, and it's fascinating to rewatch the movie, knowing where it's headed, and notice the subtle choices Willis makes that reflect what his character does and doesn't know. Toni Collette and Olivia Williams are also strong in roles that could have just been plot functionaries, and Shyamalan was wise to take the time to make them relatable, sympathetic characters, making the resolution of Willis and Osment's storylines as emotionally resonant as they are.

It's still Shyamalan's strongest movie as a director, too - the movie's subtle but carefully designed visual compositions, particularly the use of color, suggest that the director is a gifted visual storyteller with a remarkable career ahead of him. It's a shame that Night took the wrong lesson from the movie's runaway success, though, attempting to replicate the impact of its twist with diminishing returns. I like his next two films, and The Village is well made for such a completely ridiculous movie, but it's all downhill from there. Once he cast himself as a writer who is literally the savior of humanity, as he did in Lady in the Water, it's clear that he mistook himself, the storyteller, as the star of his movies, rather than the stories themselves. Still, The Sixth Sense holds up well enough to hope that Shyamalan might still be capable of surprising us.

U.S. Release Date: August 6, 1999 (Also opening that day: The Thomas Crown Affair, Mystery Men, The Iron Giant, Dick)

What critics said at the time: 

"There are some horror movies, like 'The Innocents,' poetic enough to get by on mood. Shyamalan, though, is a pedant. He appears to think he’s creating an eerie atmosphere layer by layer with the movie’s unrelievedly dingy look (it was shot by Tak Fujimoto) and the funereal pacing of each scene. But the tempo only makes you wonder where the movie’s connective tissue has gone." - Charles Taylor, Salon

"The Sixth Sense (atmospherically shot by The Silence of the Lambs’ cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto) is actually a drama—its spooky, effective ad campaign is misleading. Only because I was expecting something different did I notice—rather, feel—the movie’s running time, which is just shy of two hours. The story unfurls slowly but engrossingly; its unexpected finish is definitely worth the wait. I’m not sure said big twist ending is bulletproof, but I admired its audacity." - Bill Chambers, Film Freak Central

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