The Sixth Sense (1999) ****½
On the whole, the 1990’s have not been a good decade for horror movies. On the one hand, the major studios have completely surrendered to the notion that any ass-lickingly bad movie can be made good if an inconceivable sum of money is spent on it. On the other hand, the schlockmeisters haven’t been holding up their end of the bargain either, apparently having forgotten that horror movies are supposed to at least try to scare the audience (that most of them are doomed to fail is irrelevant-- it never stopped William Castle or Bert I. Gordon or Herschel Gordon Lewis, did it?), and have spent the last ten years or so making what are in fact comedies, whose only resemblance to real horror movies lies in the fact that their characters die hideously. But this year, it seems as if a few filmmakers have realized that this is the last chance for the 90’s to produce a single horror movie of lasting merit, and have steeled themselves for the task of making it, setting aside their millions of dollars’ worth of pyrotechnic equipment and their highly unconvincing CGI snakes. Director M. Night Shyamalan is one of those filmmakers. The Sixth Sense is his movie, and it may just be the one we’ve been waiting for.
It’s good. And I don’t mean that it’s bad in a good way, or that it’s good in comparison to Dr. Giggles or Anaconda. I mean that it is a truly good film, by pretty much any imaginable criterion. And most importantly, I mean that it achieves the ultimate, and most often missed goal of the horror movie-- it’s scary.
The story begins with Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis, who for once is powerless to ruin a movie he appears in), a professionally successful and happily married child psychologist, celebrating that very success and happiness with his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams). When the two head off to bed, drunk as Scythians, they find that their home has been broken into by one of Dr. Crowe’s former patients (Donnie Wahlberg, from Black Circle Boys and Saw II). This patient is extremely unhappy about the fact that he is still insane, and he takes out his anger by shooting Crowe in the gut and himself in the head.
Flash forward nine months to Dr. Crowe sitting on the stoop across from the home of his newest patient, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment, one of the very few good child actors that Homo sapiens has ever produced). The new boy reminds him a lot of the patient who shot him, and Dr. Crowe becomes consumed by the idea that, by helping Cole, he can redeem himself for the failure that got him a bullet in the gut nine months before. It is not at all clear at first what Cole’s problem is. Certainly, he is an outcast at school, with few friends and many classmates who delight in tormenting him; certainly, he has trouble dealing with his and his mother’s abandonment by his father. But it seems that something else is at work. Creepy things happen around this kid. Thermostats drop. Things disappear or get broken. He often knows things that he seemingly couldn’t, such as the nickname with which his history teacher’s classmates used to taunt him as a child. In the very first scene of Cole at home, his mother (Toni Collette) leaves the kitchen for scarcely a minute after setting up breakfast, and returns to find Cole sitting just as she left him, but every single drawer and cabinet hanging open. “I was looking for Pop Tarts,” the boy explains. Dr. Crowe gradually develops Cole’s trust until one night, after a party at which he was locked in a closet by some other kids only to emerge with inexplicable injuries, the boy confesses his secret. If you saw the commercials, you know the scene. “I see dead people,” he says, “all the time-- they’re everywhere.” These ghosts are invisible to everyone else, of course, so Dr. Crowe naturally assumes that Cole is having hallucinations. But we know better, don’t we?
Meanwhile, all is not well on the home front. Crowe’s marriage is disintegrating under the pressure of his near-obsessive dedication to his work with his new patient. He no longer seems to have time for anything else, and it seems as though his wife is so accustomed to his absence that she doesn’t notice him on those rare occasions when he is around. They never seem to communicate anymore, and he even discovers that she’s seeing another man. Pay close attention to this subplot; it’s more important than you think.
Now, about those ghosts... whew! I want to make it clear that I am the poster boy for cinema-induced desensitization. It has been literally years since anything I saw in a movie fazed me. But some of these ghosts are goddamned scary. The suicide housewife is bad. The boy who played with his father’s gun in the 1970’s is worse. But the puking girl eclipses them all. The single most effective device used to create suspense in this film is the business with the thermostats. As Osment’s character explains, when ghosts are around, particularly angry ghosts, it gets cold. Thus, whenever you see a character walk down a hallway past a thermostat whose needle is visibly moving, whenever you can see a character’s breath, you know what’s coming. It doesn’t sound like much when you read about it, but trust me, it works on the screen, much better than that ominous music does. There is stuff in this movie that can make an entire theater full of teenage girls scream in perfect unison and set the little hairs moving on even my jaded spine.
Naturally, ghosts don’t just follow little psychic boys around for no reason (at least not in good movies, they don’t). It turns out that they have errands they want run for them. Even though they don’t realize that they’re dead, they do seem to have noticed that Cole is the only thing in town that they can have an effect on, and they are determined to use him and his body to carry out whatever unfinished task it is that’s keeping them from getting a good eternity’s sleep. Herein lies the admittedly somewhat anticlimactic resolution to the main story, but with much greater dramatic effect, it provides the key to resolving the subplot about Dr. Crowe’s marriage, and to the first surprising surprise ending I’ve seen since I first saw the original Night of the Living Dead way back in junior high. I’m not going to say anything more about that ending-- you understand. But if, at the end of the movie, you can honestly say you saw it coming, feel free to consider yourself numbered among the plot-prediction ubermenschen.