HELLABRATION DELUXE! Thirty-One Days of SHOCKTOBER: Day THIRTEEN – 10/13/18

10/13 – 1999: THE SIXTH SENSE

How in the wide, wide world of sports could it be possible to make and break your career right out of the gate, with your first smash box office hit? Ask extremely controversial director M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN, because that’s exactly what happened with THE SIXTH SENSE, one of the best paranormal ‘mind-fuck’ chillers ever made. And there had been some really good ones that came before, and that followed it. But none had quite the same impact that this did, only the third film he’d made.

BRUCE WILLIS, whose last big film the year before, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, didn’t exactly set multiplex box offices aflame (although now it’s a beloved sci-fi cult classic) stars here as Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a disillusioned child psychologist. Tragically attacked by one of his former charges, who then commits suicide, Malcolm considers himself a failure, and is looking for redemption from the horrific debacle.

His potential chance comes in the form of Cole Sear, the role that defined the career of HALEY JOEL OSMENT, although he’d done some films and TV before, including a small role in FOREST GUMP. As the famous line goes, Cole sees “dead people”, who don’t seem to know they’re dead, and worst of all – they all want to talk to him, though he has no idea why he has this connection to the spirit world.

It’s Malcolm who finally seems to be the most helpful adult that Cole can confide in, as he advises him to listen when the spirits communicate with him, to see what it is that they want. And as it turns out, they want many different things. Perhaps the second most stunning sequence in the film is Cole’s encounter with the ghost of a young girl named Kyra Collins, (future star of “THE O.C.” MISCHA BARTON), whose untimely death via a mysterious illness, turns out to be a lot more than her family knew about.

Shyamalan’s greatest gift isn’t just the cleverness of the storytelling. He has real empathy for all of his characters, even the unlikable ones, and therefore you become equally invested in them.  So much so, that until you’ve seen this multiple times, you don’t realize how he’s setting you up for one of the most stunning ‘reveals’, not just in horror film history, but film in general.  And that’s how he also managed to make and then break himself all at once. Not unlike ORSON WELLES did with CITIZEN KANE, Shyamalan made one of the most audacious debuts to come from a fledgling director up to that time period, and in the films that followed, audiences expected every “Shyamalan twist” to be just as gasp-inducing as the first time. But he soon discovered that the hardest act to follow was himself.

Willis gives one of the best performances of his career outside his usual forays into action blockbusters, (DEATH BECOMES HER has the other great turn). HALEY JOEL OSMENT seemed destined for super-stardom, as one of the least saccharine, real little kids ever to break into cinema. OLIVIA WILLIAMS has what amounts to a cameo as Malcolm’s wife, Anna, but what she does is effective and vitally important to the story, and she’s perfect for it. DONNIE WAHLBERG as the distraught former patient, whose horrendous act of violence sets the plot in motion, shows where the acting chops in that family really are.

But the one to really watch here is TONI COLLETTE, as single mom Lynn Sear. I would go as far as to put her performance right up there with ELLEN BURSTYN’S in THE EXORCIST. As a mother desperately trying to understand what’s going on with her kid, and feeling nearly powerless to help, she neither overplays or underplays it, hitting the sweet spot particularly in a scene that is a tear-jerker: when she truly comes to believe in her son’s abilities, as he reveals something to her that he couldn’t have possibly known about otherwise. (Everyone who’s seen it remembers that scene.) In fact, watching it back again, it comes as no surprise that THE SIXTH SENSE was nominated for – you got it – SIX Oscars, including nods for Osment, Collette and of course for Shyamalan’s directing.

After a rough period of diminishing returns on his features, that seemingly began with LADY IN THE WATER, going rapidly downhill from there, “Night” has made a considerable comeback with THE VISIT, SPLIT, and the soon-to-be-released GLASS. (I wonder if that one holds any interest for me? Hmmm…)  But THE SIXTH SENSE is that one that every director wishes they had in their arsenal, but also fears…because it’s that ‘lightning-in-a-bottle’ that you can only really capture once, and never again.

POST-MORTEM SCRYPT: This was the same year that also gave us RAVENOUS, AUDITION, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, STIR OF ECHOES, SLEEPY HOLLOW, and existenZ.


Posted by Samuel Glass

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