Shock isn’t scary; suspense is – The Sixth Sense

As October wraps up, it seems appropriate to talk about a movie from 1999 that was a genuinely good, suspense-filled ghost story. It’s one that caught most people off guard, especially with its ending. And it was so quiet!

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Directed by M. Night Shaymalan

It’s undoubtedly due to the time of year that I find I’ve been recently watching films of a supernatural nature. Not long ago I wrote about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and last week Ugetsu (1953). Those two movies tackled the subject of ghosts in very different ways. Last night I watched The Sixth Sense (1999), a movie that takes on the subject in a much more traditional way. It’s aspires to, and succeeds at, being a scary movie.

Most people I know have seen the movie but if you have not you should know that this entire review is likely to be a spoiler, so you’ve been warned. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend reading nothing about it anywhere until you have.

I’ve probably seen The Sixth Sense three or four times now and each time I feel a sense of melancholy – except for that first time. I feel that way because, once seen, you can never see it as you did that first time. Once seen, it becomes a completely new movie. (See, You can’t watch the same movie twice.)

However, make no mistake. This is a movie that should be seen at least twice. In a sense, you get two movies for the price of one: the movie where you didn’t know the ending and the one where you do know how it ends. That difference is a big deal with this movie.

Haley Joel Osment plays Cole, a very troubled boy. Bruce Willis plays a child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, who tries to help him. It isn’t until roughly the movie’s mid-point that we (and Dr. Crowe) discover the nature of Cole’s trouble: “I see dead people.”

Yes, we’re in a ghost story. It’s one that ends with a big revelation for the audience (even more so for Dr. Crowe). All the tumblers fall into place then as we understand that what we’ve seen was not what we thought we were seeing.

Watching the movie again, you see how all the clues are there and most are remarkably simple, even obvious, and you wonder how you didn’t see them the first time. The answer is that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan understands how we watch movies, especially our expectations.

There is a scene in the movie where Dr. Crowe shows Cole a magic trick and it’s a nice analogy for how the movie works. His trick is no trick at all. The scene is about setting up a trick and how in setting it up we expect something. The trick (if you can call it that) is that what we expect doesn’t happen.

The movie also works because Shyamalan also understands that a scary movie is all about mood. You may notice how remarkably quiet the movie is. With the exception of a few short scenes, most of the movie is still, almost silent. When characters speak to one another it’s intimately, often whispered and hushed. Sound is used delicately and when it is loud it is usually brief and for punctuation, such as a scene where a quick, single chord is heard as a ghost passes by a door. Yes, we jump.

The performances are also very good and, because they are, help pull us into the movie’s mystery. Haley Joel Osment gives a performance you would expect from an old pro, complex and perfectly times, and Bruce Willis gives one of his best performances, understated and poignant in its restraint.

The Sixth Sense is one of those wonderfully entertaining spooky movies that understands atmosphere creates suspense and worry. Shock is a different kind of movie and that isn’t what this movie cares about. It cares about suspense and surprise.

And it delivers.

On Amazon:

You can’t see the same movie twice

This is not an injunction to only watch new movies. It’s a reference to the old Heraclitus thing about the same man never being able to enter the same river twice: the river has changed and so has the man.

So it is with movies. You can watch the same movie but you won’t see the same movie. For one thing, you know how it ends. (That is, assuming you stayed awake through the entire film.)

Am I stating the obvious? Yes. But I do so in order to explain why I will watch a given movie more than once – sometimes many times. While it’s not true of every movie, some movies offer up something new with each viewing.

I know people who think it’s madness to watch a movie twice. In some ways, I agree with them. Some movies aren’t worth seeing twice. There just isn’t enough to them. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad movies, not worth watching. Many of them are, if only for the spectacle or humour or pacing. But once seen, they are quickly forgettable. It doesn’t invalidate the experience. It just means they aren’t memorable.

Some movies almost become entirely new movies when seen a second time. To take a rather extreme example, there is no way you can watch The Sixth Sense a second time and have the same experience. The first viewing is entirely dependent on not knowing the ending. The second time, when you know the end, it becomes a different experience. In part, you may watch with some detachment in order to see how you were set up for that ending. For me, part of watching The Sixth Sense more than once is to enjoy the atmosphere the movie creates. It’s a bit like a Polanski movie in the way mood is such an important element.

Of course, not every movie has such an ending. Others are much more about reaching an expected conclusion, as in a romantic comedy. You know how it will end. What makes it fun to watch is seeing how they get there (not to mention the performances).

The Philadelphia Story is a good example of that. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen the movie but I return to it again and again because it always makes me laugh, always makes me feel good, and always fascinates me by the exceptional performances of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn (individually and together).

Often, that is my reason for watching a movie two or more times. Something inside me wants to repeat the experience of that first viewing, even though I know it will never be the same. But in many cases, it’s darned close. (I love watching Legally Blonde for that reason. It continues to be delightful, although it had a surprise element the first time I saw it because I had low expectations and was completely taken off guard by its cleverness and charm.)

Some movies take on a nostalgic quality depending on how old they are and how old you are/were. Recently, I was showing a friend some of the DVDs in my collection and she was almost giggling with delight because she saw movies like Say Anything and Jerry Maguire. They were movies just old enough to be connected with her younger self, pre-marriage, pre-children, and were remembered as both good movies and as movies that held fond memories for her. (Sometimes people get a kick out of the hair and clothes of a particular period.)

I watch movies for a number of reasons and, usually, those reasons differ day to day because my mood is different from one day to another. Frankly, some days I just want to see a simplistic comedy or action film or spectacle kind of movie. Other days, I’m much more in the mood for something with a good deal more meat to it.

But to get back to the business of watching a movie more than once … There are any number of reasons for doing so, and movies (like us) change over time. No, not literally, not objectively. But we never see anything objectively. Everything we see is filtered through who and when we are, our experiences and moods. It is a subjective experience even though we may, sometimes, agree with one another about a film.

One last example … Years ago, probably around when it was first released, I watched and enjoyed Blade Runner. Not long ago, Blade Runner: The Final Cut was released, so I picked it up and watched it. I couldn’t tell you what the differences were with the first one, which I initially saw long ago. In many ways, it was like seeing a movie for the first time, though not really because I had a general idea of what the movie was about and had certain images planted in my head. Hell, I knew what a replicant was.

The point, however, is this: I absolutely loved it when I watched The Final Cut. That wasn’t long ago – maybe a few months? Anyway … I watched it again a day or two ago. And … it did nothing for me. I actually had some sense of anachronism – though a futuristic film, it seemed to have, if not an 80s look and feel, an 80s interpretation of what the future would be like.

Why did it play a bit flat for me this time? There could be a number of reasons. It might be as simple as, it was too soon after seeing it the first time (this latter, Final Cut, version). It might have been that I just wasn’t in the right mood for that kind of movie. Though playing flatly for me, I could still see all its strengths. It remains a remarkable movie. But I couldn’t surrender to it this time.

Though the same movie, it wasn’t the same movie. Both I and the film had changed.


My review of Jerry Maguire, linked above, is pretty lame. I’ve watched the movie a few times since, including just the other day, so I hope to update or replace that review with something a bit more … let’s say, substantial.)