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?

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links