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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #332: The Sixth Sense

The movie that kick started M. Night Shyamalan’s career and featured THAT twist ending, “The Sixth Sense” (1999) is the best kind of ghost story there is. It relies on environment and tension, not gore, to scare its audience. Its protagonist is a nine-year-old boy haunted by spirits, making him a very vulnerable victim. His mother of course attributes his behavior to hallucinations and has a psychologist try to help out, but the doctor himself is unsure if he can do anything. That kid is in for some wild nights.

Of course “The Sixth Sense” is known for its twist ending that put a whole new spin on the story. In case you are one of six people on Earth who have not seen it, no spoilers from me. Unfortunately, I accidently read the ending on a movie web site that listed the twist endings from Shyamalan’s three best films since 1999. This is why I always try to watch as many movies as possible over the weekend: you never know when you are going to miss one that everyone will talk about and spoil it for you. However, when I did catch up and rent the movie a few years ago in Quebec City, I watched it with my mom who had no idea what was coming. The look on her face when the big twist is revealed? Priceless!

The movie has three main characters sharing the screen. Bruce Willis, proving he can do other things then Die Hard, plays doctor Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist living in Philadelphia. While enjoying a quiet evening with his wife (Olivia Williams), Crowe is shot by a former patient (Donnie Wahlberg) who accuses him of not doing enough to stop his hallucinations.

The second character is Crowe’s next patient Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who seems to be suffering from similar problems. The third is Toni Collette as the boy’s mother who is becoming very high-strung herself. It is bad enough her son is saying some very disturbing things at school, but when she leaves the kitchen for no more than 10 seconds he has somehow opened almost every drawer in the room without leaving his chair. That is a very well edited sequence.

After slowly gaining Cole’s trust, Crowe learns why he is always afraid: “I see dead people,” he says. The ghosts show up whenever and wherever they feel like it, which makes life very difficult for the young boy. Whether he is going to the bathroom in the middle of the night or working at school, angry ghosts show up. As a psychologist Crowe of course believes Cole is suffering from some form of psychosis, but recordings of his sessions with his previous patient indicate Cole is going to need more than typical psychology.

This is a very effective thriller with scares that rely on timing and scary makeup on the ghosts. One particular effective scene is when Cole is hiding in a tent in his bedroom, only to realize he is not alone. This is the kind of scene that will make you afraid of the dark. Osment is great in those scenes, but is also at ease when he is sharing screen time with the much more experience Willis.

Shyamalan would use Willis’ everyman persona again in his next hit “Unbreakable,” which also had its own twist ending. Unfortunately, things started to spiral downward from there. Shyamalan went from “The Sixth Sense” to “The Village,” “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender.” Fingers crossed this summer’s “After Earth” turns things around.
If not, he should probably cut back on his budgets and go back to films with a small budget with a strong story. “The Sixth Sense” racked an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for Osment as well as over $600 million out of a $40 million budget. “The Last Airbender” did manage to make some money out of its $150 million budget, but it also won awards for worst movie, director, screenplay and supporting actor. Sometimes you get a much better movie if you keep things low key.


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