The Sixth Sense

The Decline & Fall
of M. Knight Shyamalan

SIGNS. 2002

Reviews by Paghat the Ratgirl

When M. Knight Shamalangadingdong first sprang upon the world with The Sixth Sense (1998) starring Bruce Willis & the haunted child, Haley Joel Osment, there was a feeling throughout horror fandom that a new dark light of weird cinema had arrived. It hit a nerve for more than just horror fans, too. It was an international fad, with "I see dead people" the one-liner that was whispered round the world.

That it was whispered primarily as a joke should've been a warning.

UnbreakableWith hindsight & other films from the same director, we can now see that The Sixth Sense was something of a fluke. Unbreakable (2000) was a reasonably good film, an enjoyable meditation on comic book obsession of the unhealthiest sort, starring Bruce Willis as the man who cannot die, & Samuel L. Jackson chewing the scenery as Cannot Die's arch enemy Brittle Man. It was no Sixth Sense but it was sure strange, & we all kept our fingers crossed that Shamalangadingdong would be able to hold at least this level of quality into the future.

But then Signs took a header in the toilet, a dreadful script about flying saucer creatures & crop circles & Mel Gibson running around as a frenzied father busting out the flashlights & locking a tiny monster in the pantry. It came off as a really bad remake of the low-budget Critters (1986) but without the saving graces of humor & imagination.

SignsCould Shamalanadingdong get any worse than that we wondered? Sure he could! Taking his time to bring The Village (2004) to a theater near you, I remember watching the trailer for the first time & saying to my sweetums, "Just so long as it doesn't turn out that they're hermetically sealed on a nature preserve, that might not be too bad."

But damn, the "surprise" ending was just that predictable. Despite a slick veneer & some solid performances by just about everyone except the excreble William Hurt, the script was just awful & a few good performances couldn't hide that fact.

One gets the impression that Shamalanadingdong had blown his wad on one film & knew he could never do anything that good ever again, & had gotten desparate. Desparate enough, indeed, to have plagiarised The Village from Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time (1995).

Haddix found out her children's book had been adapted to the screen from reporters & fans who upon returning from a theater outing immediately tracked down her e-mail address. She was deluged by people who wanted her to know they recognized her book, ›would-be "surprise" ending & all.

Not everyone initially assumed plagiarism. Some assumed the rights to the book had been legally obtained. People just wondered why her book wasn't mentioned in the credits.

The VillageHaddix's fans had been posting about the plagiarism in newsgroups & in reviews even before Simon & Schuster found out about it. Critics who had seen Shyamalan's script noted that it includes scenes not left in the film but which were filmed identical to scenes in Haddix's book.

Simon & Schuster entered into discussions with Disney in an attempt to avoid a court case. Disney & Shyamalan's company Binding Edge have issued a joint statement denying plagiarism. Yet Haddix's book sold a half-million copies, was awarded prizes & even nominated for an Edgar Award, so is not an obscure book that couldn't possibly have been seen by Shyamalan.

The well-worn excuse "my movies are not very original, I juse deal a worn-out cliches, so of course my stupid movie has echoes of any number of books!" For Shamalangadingdong this should be the perfect excuse, but not in this case.

In fact Haddix's book had been sent to the major producers & was twice optioned, to Viacom then to Nickelodian. But options expired in 2003. This type of behavior is typical in the film industry -- books bandied about the industry for a couple years to see if they can be made, then shortly after options expire, the movies are made without reference to the book that was already being discussed within the industry.

Shyamalan's "original" script for Signs was also believed to have been plagiarised from an unproduced screenplay that had earlier been making the rounds, called Lord of the Barrens. Federal suit was filed by Robert McIlhenny of Trilenium Pictures against Disney & Shyamalan. When plagiarists in the Hollywood system get caught, the usual response is to settle out of court in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement, & dishonest filmmakers proceed to their next act of thievery.

Wide AwakeShamalanadingdong seems to have a salesman's capacity to talk top-flight actors into working with him. Since the average horror film has few if any actors of merit, excellent actors can somewhat disguise the otherwise unmistakable vapidness & mediocrity of the scripts especially for Signs & The Village.

When he has no top-flight actors to fool the audience into liking a film with a story that basically sucks, what the director ends up with is Wide Awake which is such an immature piece of "family fare" rubbish it could easily have been plagiarised from a thirteen year old Catholic school boy. Plus its "big" star is the grating Rosy O'Donnell.

One can easily see the desparation of a one-hit-wonder to come up with filmable scripts resorting to plagiarisms. With an established history of mediocrity, it becomes harder & harder to remember what it was about The Sixth Sense which impressed so many, including me.

I do remember arguing with some film fans at the time, fans who had seen the ending coming a mile away & regarded the film as simpleminded pablum. But I hadn't seen that ending coming, though I'm not often surprised by such things, & I still believe the script was clever for a single viewing. Some have pointed out it cannot hold up for multiple viewings over time the way really great movies can, because once the end is known, what's the point. Personaly I think a second viewing after knowing its primary punch-line is worthwhile.

Sixth Sense tells a tremendously emotional story of the boy pursued by ghosts -- you really don't need more story than that to hold a viewer's attention -- but then at the ending you realize you've been watching two stories at once & it almost demands you go back & see it a second time in order to pay more attention to that "hidden" yet always-present "other" story.

Just as Sixth Sense was on its way to theaters, the trailer, I remember, incorporated the punchlines of three of the film's pivotal moments, & it might've been an even more effective film if the trailer hadn't been shown ten billion times & robbed the film of impact at those sequences. I would've loved to have seen the film that first time not already knowing what those key lines were going to be.

But nowadays, the film is so well known that even people who never saw it will know the ending & it will never take people so much by surprise as it did upon release. Still, I believe it is a strong enough film (for a genre frequently shy of any good at all) that it is much more than its ending, & may remain forever Shamalanadingdong's most watchable film.

Though the elements of horror are more convincing than in the typical (campy) genre horror film, it is the emotional content that makes this a better than average movie. There are at least three really first-rate acting performances at center stage (kid, mom, & shrink) plus a supporting cast that never stinks.

It's no perfect work of art, & if you think too hard about the story, little pieces of it don't make sense. Like the "hidden video" sequence where poison is being added to a child's lunch -- the poisoner wouldn't have gone into the kid's bedroom to add the poison since the girl might've been awake (indeed, was awake) -- the poison would've been added while the meal was being prepared, so would not have been filmed by the hidden video. There were several other moments that were not rationally worked out as well as they might've been, so the script, clever as it seems, is occasionally clever to a fault.

Even with the director forever under a cloud of thefts & mediocrity, it is only fair to recall Sixth Sense as its own entity that affected many viewers strongly. It's a nice little film & such a pleasure to see a horror story that depended on character & emotion as much as it depended on the scariness of the spirits of people who've died of violence. I try to hold on to that initial impression for this one film, even if the writer/director has in the meantime proven to be just about anything but a genius.

copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl

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