Just when you thought "The Blair Witch Project" had raised the bar on movie terror about as far as it could go, along comes "The Sixth Sense," a smart, sophisticated and sensitive film that is also, by the way, very spooky.
Written and directed with remarkable assurance and visual elegance by 28-year-old M. Night Shyamalan, "The Sixth Sense" wouldn't seem to have much in common with "Blair Witch." Where "Blair Witch" starred a cast of unknowns, "The Sixth Sense" is a vehicle for none other than Bruce Willis; where "Blair Witch" is visually spare, "The Sixth Sense" is rich to the point of opulence; where "Blair Witch" has the jangly energy of an actor's improvisation exercise, "The Sixth Sense" is exquisitely and carefully choreographed.
But both films share what makes a movie great: a brilliant conceit that is maintained unwaveringly throughout, without one compromise or false moment. "The Sixth Sense" is one of those rare horror movies that not only takes viewers on a convincing journey to the world just beyond this one but actually treats that terra incognita with a respect and even reverence missing from most cinematic tours to the other side.
What's more, "The Sixth Sense" features a truly astonishing performance from Haley Joel Osment, the actor who plays opposite Willis in a performance that would be extraordinary even if it weren't in the hands of an 11-year-old boy.
Haley plays Cole Sear, a young boy who is either blessed with psychic abilities or cursed with severe emotional problems. Marked with strange scratches along his back and arms, occasionally uttering a prayer in Latin, Cole is a painfully isolated child until he meets child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Willis).
Crowe had a patient just like Cole several years ago and has recently had a painful reunion with him; he vows not to fail this youngster as he did the other. As Crowe delves more deeply into Cole's haunted world, the realities of his own existence -- especially his strained marriage -- come into sharper and more agonizing focus.
Best to stop there, because "The Sixth Sense" is too full of surprises to spoil. Shyamalan, who makes his wide-release theatrical debut here, has made one of the most cleverly constructed stories to be seen on-screen in a long time, and to choose any one thread for scrutiny would almost ruin the entire tapestry.
Suffice it to say that he has succeeded in creating an entirely believable world into which filmgoers will easily slip, until their sensibilities are given an unforgettable jolt at the end.
Filmed entirely on location in Philadelphia, "The Sixth Sense" captures that city's stately beauty and its slightly spirit-ridden air; of all American cities, this is the one where it's easy to imagine ghosts sidling up alongside their sentient brethren.
Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto has photographed "The Sixth Sense" in somber tones that fit the story's gravity; when a team of brightly clothed baseball players passes Cole and Crowe on a city street, it looks as jarring as a beach towel on a grave.
Although there are moments of genuine humor in "The Sixth Sense," especially a running gag about a classmate of Cole's who is a child actor, Shyamalan maintains a finely calibrated tone of solemnity throughout, which lends its brief scenes of gore an air of real grief rather than exploitation.
The same sort of commitment can be seen in the performances in "The Sixth Sense," all of which are outstanding: Willis, who delivers most of his lines in a pained whisper, is entirely credible as a man who is gradually losing control of his life, and Toni Collette, as Cole's frazzled mom, is nothing short of brilliant in a quietly bravura portrayal.
But the face and voice that will haunt filmgoers for a long time to come belong to Haley, who seems to possess the wisdom of the ages in this ethereal role. Watching his compelling and affecting performance, I couldn't help recalling Edward Norton's electrifying debut in "Primal Fear." In the film, Cole explains to Crowe that when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, it means that you're in the presence of unhappy ghosts. Here, it means you're in the presence of a terrifically promising actor who gets under your skin and stays there.
The Sixth Sense'
Starring Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Released by Hollywood Pictures
Rated PG-13 (intense thematic material and violent images)
Running time: 107 minutes
Sun score: ***1/2