Film: It was so good, I even forgot to get frightened

The Sixth Sense Director: M Night Shyamalan Starring: Bruce Willis, Olivia Williams, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette (107 mins; 15)

There are films - indeed, the great majority - that can be judged on the basis of a single viewing. There are films that need more than one viewing for their full measure to be taken. And, of course, as everyone knows, even though no one cares to say so publicly, there are films that can be judged without being viewed at all. The Sixth Sense, made by the arrestingly named M Night Shyamalan (pronounced "SHA-mah-lahn", according to the press kit), is of the middle type, except that, when seen a second time, it becomes a radically different experience. For it has an eleventh- hour twist that breaks one of the basic rules of cinematic grammar by systematically subverting what it is the spectator believes he or she has been looking at throughout the film. Of that twist, more later.

The Sixth Sense is, I suppose, a horror film, something I normally abominate. I say "I suppose" because it's the antithesis of Scream, of The Faculty, of The Mummy. It isn't, thank God, "playful". It has none of those neo- , post- and techno- encrustrations with which the genre has saddled itself of late. There are no special effects, no nudging asides, no tongues in cheeks, either in the gory or the satirical sense. It's a big, impersonal machine all right, but it's been made with remarkable sobriety for a contemporary Hollywood movie. For once, one has the sense of a prodigious directorial metier at the service of a script (Shyamalan's own) rather than vice versa.

If it belongs to any codified tradition, it's that of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby; or, further back, of the silkily monochromatic masterpieces (Cat People, etc) produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s; or, even further back, of the short stories of Poe, Hoffmann, Wilkie Collins and ... well, let's just say, another 19th-century master of the fantastique, an American, the divulgence of whose name might be just enough to give the game away. One reviewer has actually compared The Sixth Sense to Tarkovsky, which is ludicrous, save that, even as one wonders at the ineptness of the comparison, one knows what he means.

Malcolm Crowe (a creepily introverted Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist whose charmed existence - adoring wife, the collective esteem of his peers - is shattered when a demented former patient, evidently not one of his successes, breaks into his apartment, shoots him then commits suicide. Though Crowe survives, his professional confidence has been disastrously impaired; until, an unspecified time later, he finds himself assigned to the case of Cole Sear (the amazing Haley Joel Osment), a little boy whose pathology, not to mention his physical appearance, bears a disquieting likeness to that of Crowe's assailant. Patently, then, this is going to be that trusty old Hollywood favourite, a narrative of redemption. By curing the boy of his demons, Crowe means at the same time to exorcise his own.

It does, and it doesn't, work out like that. What is striking about The Sixth Sense is how sparing Shyamalan is with the genre's fee-faw-fum flummery. Though it's a ghost story, its melancholy ghosts are nothing more than the insomniacs of death, as intimidated by us as we are by them, and even the relentlessly gee-isn't-this-scary mood music can be justified ex post facto as a form of sleight-of-hand (or, rather, of ear) to distract us from what's really going on. It's sympomatic of the film that, its closing twist aside, the most goose-pimply moment involves a set of ordinary kitchen- cabinet drawers. When Cole's mother leaves the kitchen, they're all closed; when she returns a split second later, they're all open. She jumps, and so did I. It wasn't only that it was unexpected - a cat leaping from an unlit doorway is unexpected - it was that the very nature of the unexpectedness was also unexpected.

That twist, now. At the beginning of this review, I intimated that I'd eventually get round to writing about it; now that the time has come, I've changed my mind. The paradoxical appeal of a narrative twist, after all, is that it constitutes the only situation not just in the world of fiction but perhaps in the world itself where we prefer to get things wrong; and even a studiously neutral allusion may prompt the reader to be on particular lookout for one once he sees the film itself and hence make it that much easier for him to deduce in advance what it might be. Suffice it to say that Shyamalan's is not simply ingenious but reverberant and really rather beautiful.

Since keeping mum about the twist leaves me with space to kill, I'd like to end with a brief postscript to an article I wrote a couple of weeks ago in this newspaper about my distaste for horror films, a distaste that was initially awakened by one of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations, that I share with Wim Wenders and that means I most definitely won't be seeing The Blair Witch Project. What only later occurred to me was that I myself, in 1981, scripted what its director, Raul Ruiz (whose Time Regained opens here in January), described as "a philosophical exploitation movie". Its title was The Territory, and it centred on a group of youthful backpackers who venture into a dense, dark forest in order to discover what has become of friends who failed to return from an earlier excursion. They themselves get lost, start hearing weird voices in the night and viciously turn on each other. The film was produced by Roger Corman and the story of its shoot, which was almost as bizarre as that of its plot, was itself made as a film, The State of Things, by Wim Wenders. Spooky, isn't it?

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