It would be rash--foolhardy, even--to imply that summer '99 has seen anything like a renaissance of the horror genre. "Lake Placid" and "Deep Blue Sea" were beached whales. "The Haunting" had all the psychological terror of a jury notice (far less, actually). "American Pie" probably offered some chills, if you were a pastry. Otherwise, it hasn't been a vintage season.
On the other hand, "The Blair Witch Project" continues to frighten and befuddle in new and unusual fashion (it's not a documentary). "Eyes Wide Shut," in its own way, is an experiment in disequilibrium. And now "The Sixth Sense," which has crept up onto summer '99 like a clammy chill, has arrived, proving if nothing else that there are avenues of terror still open to a filmmaker with nerve.
"Sixth Sense" is certainly a nervy film, one that director M. Night Shyamalan ("Wide Awake") has made so disarmingly eerie it's virtually guaranteed to rattle the most jaded of cages. Set in Philadelphia--hometown of its director and, coincidentally, near-home to New Jersey native Bruce Willis--the film concerns Malcolm Crowe (Willis), honored child psychologist and husband to Anna (Olivia Williams of "Rushmore"), who's confronted in his home one night by a patient who slipped through the cracks: Vincent Gray (a convincingly unhinged Donnie Wahlberg), blaming Crowe for the "possible mood disorder" that's still plaguing him, puts one bullet in the doctor and another through his own brain.
A few months later, a recovered but clearly chastened Crowe is sitting on a bench, watching the comings and goings of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a kid with oversized glasses and the posture of a beaten puppy. Cole, we learn, also has a "possible mood disorder." And Malcolm intends to do for Cole what he couldn't do for Gray.
But the creepiness has already set in. Mixing weird rhythms and gothic-Catholic iconography--static shots of church friezes, petrified statuary and the Latin muttered by Cole when he seeks sanctuary among the pews. "Sixth Sense" is off-kilter from the start, rich in a kind of matter-of-fact horror. Because what Malcolm doesn't know, what he can't possibly suspect until Cole eventually bares his soul, are the depths and echoes of the boy's possible "disorder."
These days, trailers are less often ads for movies than their abridged versions, so while we haven't actually seen any for "Sixth Sense," we're hoping they tell you nothing. There's little to say about the story that won't ruin some twist or turn, other than to say that the various lapses in logic will either be explained away or essentially won't matter, because the film goes so deftly about what it does.
So do the actors, for the most part. Toni Collette, who plays Cole's single and slightly brassy mother, is a virtual revelation (she was this good in "Velvet Goldmine," too). Williams, consigned to the small role of distanced wife, is also fine. Willis, as he's been in some of his better movies, is essentially a supporting player here. It's Osment, whose Cole is such an intelligent, tortured child, who easily gives the best kid performance of the year. In fact, if he were to get an Oscar nomination, it would be both historic and just.
Shyamalan's script is a clever construct, but also contains a great deal of sensitivity to the plight of the "different" child. When he drew pictures of a man with a screwdriver through his neck, Cole tells Malcolm, they called his mother into school. So he started drawing rainbows. "They don't have meetings about rainbows," Cole says.
If there's a complaint to be had with the film, it's that the ending goes on far too long, belaboring the points that have been made so alarmingly and well. It is as if someone wanted to reinforce the idea that this is a Bruce Willis Film, which it's not. He can, however, be proud he was in it.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense thematic material and violent images. Times guidelines: imperiled children and some gross-out footage; tension may be too intense for younger viewers.
'The Sixth Sense'
Haley Joel Osment: Cole Sear
Bruce Willis: Malcolm Crowe
Toni Collette: Lynn Sear
Olivia Williams: Anna Crowe
Donnie Wahlberg: Vincent Gray
Hollywood Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment present a Kennedy/Marshall/Barry Mendel production. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Producers Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy and Barry Mendel. Executive producer Sam Mercer. Director of photography Tak Fujimoto. Editor Andrew Mondshein. Production designer Larry Fulton. Art director Philip Messina. Set decorator Douglas Mowat. Costume designer Joanna Johnston. Music by James Newton Howard. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
In general release.