The Sixth Sense


This is what people look like when they see dead people.

This is what people look like when they see dead people.

(1999) Supernatural Drama (Hollywood) Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment, Olivia Williams, Trevor Morgan, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Tambakis, Jeffrey Zubernis, Bruce Norris, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mischa Barton, Angelica Torn, Lisa Summerour, Firdous Bamji, Samia Shoaib, Hayden Saunier, Janis Dardaris, Sarah Ripard. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

People who see a lot of movies, like I do, are like chocoholics in a candy store – after a while, it all tastes the same. Then again, once in a while something comes along that surprises you, makes you remember what it is you love about chocolate – or movies – in the first place.

The Sixth Sense is such a movie. The marketing campaign was ingenious. It was really meant to set your expectations to a certain level and it did so very effectively. Ho hum, another fright flick in a summer that saw Deep Blue Sea and The Haunting ad inconsistium. Stars Bruce Willis, you say? The Man With the Iron Smirk never seemed to get tired of playing the Bruno character he invented in Moonlighting and hadn’t varied the character much up to the time this came out.

He plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a psychiatrist (haven’t we seen this one before?) for children who as the movie starts is celebrating a mayoral award for his sterling service to the community. Unfortunately, his celebration is ruined by a former patient (Wahlberg) with a chip on his shoulder and, more importantly, a gun in his hand. Faster than you can say “plot complication” Willis is lying on his back, wondering what hit him. It turns out it was a bullet, which can really ruin a nice evening.

Time passes as it often does in grade-B thrillers and eventually Dr. Crowe is back at work, trying to reach a child who is taunted by his classmates, who suffers from extreme panic attacks and Hides A Deep Dark Secret and yes, there always is one in grade-B thrillers.

At first reluctant to share it with the kindly doctor after a particularly hideous episode at a party (and a few very spooky encounters beforehand), he finally confesses what’s on his mind: little Cole Sear (Osment) can see dead people, and not just ANY dead people – he sees really grisly ghosts who’d met gruesome fates. As the encounters become more and more chilling, the at-first skeptical psychiatrist comes to believe that there may be more than just your garden variety psychosis at work here.

The plot description hardly does the flick justice. It reads like a Direct-to-Home Video turkey just waiting to be plucked. But an astonishingly good performance by Willis (who carries his wounds not so much in the body but in his eyes) and the once-in-a-decade plot twist that will leave you literally gasping in your seat, wondering why the heck you didn’t spot it coming. You will want to see the movie AGAIN so that you can see it from a fresh perspective. Well, that makes it first-rate in my book. And lest we forget, Osment turned in one of the best performances ever by a juvenile actor. Although his juvenile career was brief, Osment is still one of the standards we judge preteen actors by.

Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan proved himself an exciting new talent, able to tell a story simply without resorting to cheap clichés or lavish effects, creating a wonderfully tense environment that sucks the viewer in without asking him to leave their brain in the popcorn bucket. Although there are some genuinely gruesome moments, and more than a few leap-out-of-your-seat-and-scream-out-loud shocks, The Sixth Sense never sinks to excess, becoming in effect a poster child for less-is-more. Unfortunately, he didn’t take the lessons to heart; his movies since then have become exercises in excess. His star has fallen so completely that his most recent movie, After Earthhis name wasn’t use in the promotion of the film at all for fear it would keep audiences away.

In an era of much-ballyhooed, effects-laden disappointments, it’s comforting to know that the two best movies of that summer, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense met with a great deal of commercial success as well. They remain even now, nearly 15 years after their theatrical release beacons of hope that a new breed of horror movies that are intellectual instead of (or at least as well as) visceral may be on the way to multiplexes that are still cluttered with too many movies about teens making bad choices.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing twist that sets the standard for plot twists. Terrific performances from Willis and Osment. Subtly creepy without resorting to over-the-top effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The twist is so good that most people will assume you’ve seen it and tell you what it is.

FAMILY MATTERS: A fair amount of violence and gore. Some very disturbing images and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie opened on director M. Night Shyamalan’s birthday.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: On the original DVD release, there was a short super-8 horror movie Shyamalan made as a teen (which sadly wasn’t included on the Blu-Ray or Vista edition DVD), plus interviews with audience members who’d just seen the movie, as well as a featurette on the rules and clues that signified the supernatural elements. A Vista edition DVD also added a featurette on paranormal investigations as well as a look at the storyboard process. All of the above (other than the super-8 footage) are also available on the Blu-Ray release.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $672M on a $40M budget; this was a massive blockbuster by any standards.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Poltergeist

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Big Bang

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ParaNorman


ParaNorman

Norman has a different kind of homework.

(2012) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch, Tucker Albrizzi, Jeff Garlin. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler

 

There are those who believe that death brings peace, at long last, for the living. Of course, given what life is like why on earth – or beyond it – should we expect that? Why wouldn’t the afterlife be just as bothersome and as annoying as life is?

For Norman (Smit-McPhee) the current life is plenty bothersome and annoying. He is the weird kid, picked on by bullies like Alvin (Mintz-Plasse), his own exasperated sister Courtney (Kendrick), his mom (Mann) who doesn’t really understand him but tries to, and his dad (Garlin) who doesn’t even try.

See, Norman lives in a New England village called Blithe Hollow (a combination of Blithe Spirits and Sleepy Hollow  – not the first nod to both the film and literature of the spooky) which is famous for executing a witch 300 years earlier. Norman also happens to see dead people. And talk to them. And they, for their part, talk back. In fact, Norman has more friends among the dead than he does the living. His only corporeal friend is Neil (Albrizzi), a rotund but indefatigably cheerful kid who accepts things more or less at face value.

The witch, you see, had managed just before dying to affix a pretty awful curse on the town that had been stemmed off by members of Norman’s family. The latest in the line, an uncle (Goodman) has a bum ticker and is trying to transfer his knowledge to Norman but doesn’t quite make it to the big day. That’s ok; he can talk to Norman anyway.

Norman is tasked with reading from a sacred book in a certain spot. The problem is, Norman doesn’t understand what he’s reading and why it will save the town from being beset by the walking dead. He will have to link up with unlikely allies and fight against some unlikely opponents if he is to save Blithe Hollow from an army (all right, seven) of zombies.

The animation studio that gave us Coraline give us another horror-themed stop-motion animated feature that is as much for adults as it is for kids. Talk about finding your own niche. Still, if you can’t be Aardman (and how many studios really can be) this is a good place to be. Stop motion has an inherent 3D feel to it; there is depth to the faces here, from bags under the eyes of some of the characters to zits to sallow, sunken cheekbones. The movie itself is pretty dark in tone (most of it takes place at dusk or after dark) so the 3D doesn’t help it from that standpoint; still it looks pretty nifty as animated 3D features go.

The voice casting is on the quirky side. McPhee-Smit is best known for the downer action film The Road as well as the winter vampire remake Let Me In. In many ways, he had to carry a good deal of the latter film; he has to do it here vocally and does a pretty fine job of it. He has some pretty good chemistry with Mintz-Plasse and Albrizzi which helps a whole lot.

The writing is clever and lovers of horror films both classic and modern will get a kick out of the many, many references here. Whether it’s Norman being startled by a figure on his front lawn wearing a Jason-like goalie mask only to have it turn out to be Neil who calls out “Wanna play some hockey?” or nods to ghostly thrillers like The Sixth Sense and The Frighteners. However, there were some kids at the screening we went to who were clearly too young to really get the playful tone of the film. Wise parents should exercise caution before taking their kids as some of the situations and imagery is genuinely terrifying.

Still, there are some strong anti-bullying and acceptance of diversity messages here that will resonate with older kids. While the theatrical run is nearly done, this feels like it will be a Halloween kids classic that certainly out-charms and out-smarts fare like the Scooby-Doo movies and more classic TV kidfilms like Monster Mash. There is plenty of heart here and some surprisingly funny moments like Norman’s late grandmother (Stritch) who complains that the afterlife sucks because there is no cable. Having been in some pretty rustic places in the past couple of weeks, I can certainly relate.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and genuine. Lots of homages but doesn’t date itself.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes a little too cute for its own good…and a little too terrifying to really nail that core audience it wants.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the imagery is a bit too frightening for the very little. Some of the humor is a little crude as well; in fact, you might want to skip this if your kids are in single digits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although none of the cursed zombies are referred to by name (except for Judge Hopkins), they all were given names; Eben Hardwick, Thaddeus Blackton, Lemuel Spalding, Amelia Wilcot, Goodie Temper and Wile London.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are pretty darn good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Nightmare Before Christmas

JOHN CARPENTER LOVERS: While there are several classic horror films referred to throughout the script either directly or indirectly, the ringtone on Norman’s phone is the iconic theme from Carpenter’s Halloween.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Premium Rush

After.Life


After.Life

Who knew the dead could be so hot?

(2009) Horror (Anchor Bay) Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long, Josh Charles, Chandler Canterbury, Celia Watson, Luz Ramos, Rosemary Murphy, Malachy McCourt, Shuler Hensley, Alice Drummond, Sam Kressner, Erin Ward. Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo

Dead is dead, or so conventional wisdom would have it. Once we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, the party’s over. What happens then is highly up to speculation.

Anna Taylor (Ricci) is a beautiful young teacher who has the world opening up to her on the horizon. Her boyfriend Paul (Long) is about to propose when they go out to dinner but they get into an argument. Anna storms out of the restaurant and drives off, angry and emotional, the rain falling in sheets. Inevitably, she gets into a nasty accident.

When she wakes up, she’s in the morgue, attended to by Deacon (Neeson) who informs her that she’s dead. Deacon has the special gift of being able to communicate with the dead under his care, able to help transition them from this life to the afterlife. Anna finds this difficult to accept. Deacon counters that most of the newly dead find their new situation hard to accept. They always whine that they have so much left to do, so much unfinished business.

Anna feels alive though and nothing Deacon can say or do will dissuade her. She wants to call her  boyfriend to rescue her from this maniac keeping her against her will in this terrible place; but from his point of view he’s trying to help her accept her fate and move on to her final rest. But is she alive as she asserts that she is, or dead as Deacon maintains that she is?

This is an intriguing concept that has a “Twilight Zone”-esque quality to it. First-time director Wojtowicz-Vosloo doesn’t always know what to do with it. Her job, as I see it, is to keep audiences off-balance without giving away the answer to the question “is she or isn’t she” and for the most part, she succeeds. Occasionally though she stumbles, sometimes failing to maintain the inner logic of the situation. Of course, that’s more the fault of the script than the direction but as she also co-wrote the script, she doesn’t really have that out.

Ricci is lustrous here, spending a good chunk of the movie nude (and also a bluish shade which kind of increases the allure) and her trademark gothic waif look is perfect for the role. Her physical charms notwithstanding, she also gives the part a certain amount of emotional wallop, going through stages of grief (denial, anger, fear) while never becoming shrill.

She has some great chemistry with Neeson, who is such a great actor that even a role like this which doesn’t really push him all that much he still manages to imbue with his charisma and invite the audience to get invested. The movie’s main selling point is to make it ambiguous as to whether Deacon is a kindly guide or an evil monster. Neeson pulls it off so that either option is possible.

I’ve mentioned “The Twilight Zone” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – but the movie here, rather than paying homage to the show tries to emulate it a bit too much. There is not so much a Rod Serling influence rather than an attempt to bring him back from the dead and the corpse doesn’t smell too good to be honest.

That aside, the concept is good and the acting solid enough so that it gets a pass for all its flaws. Sometimes critics such as myself just have to get past what a movie could have been and accept it for  what it is. No doubt this could have been a whole lot better – but it is as is good enough for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Spooky and atmospheric. Ricci and Neeson have some great exchanges.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script should be more ambiguous and let the audience figure out whether or not Anna is dead. Too much Rod Serling here.

FAMILY VALUES: The whole theme is pretty disturbing; there’s also some nudity and sexuality as well as a buttload of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The prop knife used by Ricci during the film is the same one Glenn Close used in Fatal Attraction.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood this lost money or broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Ides of March