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The Sixth Sense Review

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Young boy is disturbed by his ability to see dead people. Bruce Willis's character befriends him and sets out to help.

★★★★

The pre-millennial obsession with life beyond the grave and the worse things that might be waiting there continues in The Sixth Sense, which exists in its own generic twilight zone, somewhere between horror movie and soap opera.

After Color Of Night (1994) and Mercury Rising (1998), expectations for anything with Bruce Willis as a therapist or helping a kid are dismal, but this is one of the rare films that actually engages him as an actor and shows how subtle and affecting he can be if he cans the smirk and plays it straight. Operating at the other end of the budget spectrum from The Blair Witch Project, this nevertheless also goes for creepiness and suggestion rather than blowing it all on CGI ghosts a la The Haunting, and reaps a fine harvest of chills, along with a few jump-out-of-your-seat shocks.

The plot is a cross between Little Man Tate and Jacob's Ladder: in grey and gloomy but history-drenched Philadelphia, child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Willis), shaken out of his complacency after a violent home invasion by an ex-patient, tries desperately to help school misfit, Cole Sear (Osment), who has disconcerting psychic and telekinetic flashes. Cole, who is desperately trying to keep his strangeness secret from his struggling single mom (Collette), eventually confesses up to Malcolm that his real special ability is that he can see the spirits of the dead. In trying to get his attention, the ghosts leave scratches on the child's body, which naturally means the authorities suspect someone in his life of child abuse. At the heart of the film is a truly terrifying idea, and director-writer Shyamalan - abetted by a brilliant performance from kid actor Haley Joel Osment, fully deserving of one of those special child-sized Oscars they don't give anymore - manages to visualise it perfectly.

You wouldn't think it, but after decades of eyeball-skewering zombies and acid-blooded aliens, you can still be scared by a pale girl under a bed, a fading sweaty hand-print, a sudden frosty breath or a couple of childish admissions (crucial scare line: all . . . the . . . time.). This ghost stuff works on a deeper level than the gross-out, and it's nice that Hollywood has rediscovered the art of the soul-freezing scare. Like the underrated Paperhouse, this knows when to stow the horror and domesticate its terrors, eventually revealing that the ghosts don't just want to say, Boo! and that Cole's gift actually has a purpose.

Then there's the ending, which pays off with one of those revelations that make you mentally unpick everything you've seen (remember The Usual Suspects or No Way Out?). And even if you see through it, this is still an extraordinarily creepy and thoughtful spook show.

Genuinely creepy at times with Haley Joel Osment stealing the show.

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