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Release Year: 1999
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
SPOILER ALERT: He was dead the whole time.
Okay, just needed to get that out of the way. And if you're mad at us for ruining the ending, it's your fault for not having heard a pop cultural reference since 1999.
And…back to the movie.
The story of a boy terrified by ghosts and the psychologist who tries to help him, The Sixth Sense was director M. Night Shyamalan's first really high-profile turn as a writer/director. He was just 29 years old at the film's release, and it was a runaway hit, raking in about $300 million gross domestically and more than $650,000,000 worldwide. On a budget of about $40 million, we'd call that a pretty decent return on investment. In fact, the film was #2 at the box office in 1999, bowing only to The Phantom Menace.
The film did great with critics, too; it's got an 85% "Fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes. (The other 15% were too scared to come out from under their theater seats, we figure.) Kid acting phenom Haley Joel Osment, starring as Cole Sear, the constantly terrified nine-year-old who sees dead people, scooped up an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor, as did his movie mom, Toni Colette. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis does an amazing turn as a psychologist who tries to help Cole with his fears while dealing with…let's just say, some of his own issues.
The film also was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted screenplay. What's the secret to the film's success? Well, it's a pretty rare piece of moviemaking, combining an old-fashioned ghost story with a modern psychological twist. There's plenty of suspense and lots of scream-worthy moments.
Things really do go bump in the night.
Add to that an emotional family story—make that two emotional family stories—and you've got a movie that can make you shriek and sob. A family drama disguised as a horror flick? That's not easy to pull off.
The Sixth Sense spawned a whole generation of films with a shocking plot twist at the end. By now, we've almost come to expect it. But honestly? Shmoop didn't see this one coming.
Well, film buffs should probably care because this is pretty much considered the high point in M. Night Shyamalan's career.
"Um," you ask, "Wasn't this his first big feature film?"
Yep. We talk about it in the "Director" section of this guide, of course, but some people would definitely argue that Shyamalan's career peaked with the critical and box-office success of The Sixth Sense. In Signs and Unbreakable, he had other financially and critically successful films, but nothing that topped the first.
But here's the strange thing: The Sixth Sense is chock-full of elements that ended up becoming part of Shyamalan's signature style going forward. Emphasis on suspense and the supernatural plus family drama? Check. Big twist toward the end? Check. Philadelphia? We're there. Random cameo by Shyamalan (because Shyamalan clearly thought he was going to be the next Hitchcock)? You bet.
So, that all prompts the question: why do the same elements that make The Sixth Sense so great not work quite as well in Shyamalan's more recent films?
It's Shmoop's theory that the film works so well because of the way Cole's supernatural problems mirror his real-life ones. While Cole's busy trying to figure out how to deal with his scary ghost companions, he's doing the same exact thing with his very alive mom. Both problems have the same solution: communication. Secrecy bad, openness good, says M. Night Shyamalan by way of Malcolm Crowe. Once you start to listen, you get less afraid and lonely. Apparently that goes for the living and the dead alike.
There are plenty of horror flicks out there; ditto plenty of family dramas. What made audiences dig The Sixth Sense was that each plot line made the other one better. The two subplots collide with the revelations at the end of the film. Cole's confession to his mom and Malcolm's confession to Anna (and subsequent revelation that he's, you know, dead) deliver an emotional double-knockout punch.
The whole film speaks to kids' fears of not being loved and accepted, to grown-ups' fears of emotional distance, and to everyone's fears of being jumped by ghosts on your way to pee at three in the morning.
The amazing thing is that Shyamalan manages to do all this without cheap thrills or heavy-handed moralizing. There's an emotional restraint throughout the film that pulls us in and then sends us staggering out of the theater thinking, "What just happened?"
No wonder the box office was so big. Everyone had to buy another ticket to see it again and figure out how on earth we could've missed that.
Bruce Willis had to do this film to make up for some, er, problems with Disney. He shut down production of one of their films by firing the director. Hmm, making him star in a film and then killing him off 10 minutes into it seems like a pretty harsh punishment. But maybe not as bad as casting him in Armageddon. Another punishment for ruining the other production was that he was only paid $10 million for this film—half of what he usually gets for a movie. Now, that's scary. (Source)
Apparently, the family storyline in the film was so strong that Toni Collette didn't even realize it would be considered a "horror film." Because a film about a kid seeing dead people is your typical holiday family fare? (Source)
The usually ripped Donnie Wahlberg lost a lot of weight to play Vincent—so much that we bet you didn't even recognize him...if you knew who he was in the first place. (Source)
Haley Joel Osment couldn't always cry on cue. His dad suggested to Bruce Willis that he yell at Osment off-camera to make him cry. It did the trick. (Source)
Quizzes with a Twist
Want more Sixth Sense quizzing? See if you can pick out which statement about the movie is false . . .
Check out Rotten Tomatoes for all the critical dish. Verdict: awesome.
Where Are They Now?
Shyamalan didn't become the cinematic superstar people were expecting after Sixth Sense. Well, yet. Read all about it.
Love the Tux
11-year-old Haley Joel Osment talks acting, Bruce Willis, and SportsCenter.
Don't Believe Us That the Movie is Great?
We came with backup: read Roger Ebert's original 1999 review.
One Critic's Nightmare
The Guardian's Sian Cain is still afraid to go to the bathroom at night 15 years after seeing the movie.
Fool Me Once
Here's all the clues you missed the first time you watched the film.
The Horror. The Horror.
Shyamalan checks off all the traditional horror movie tropes. Here they are. The writer helpfully leaves some things blank (unless you click on them) to preserve the surprise ending.
After watching the trailer, you're thinking, "They just gave away the whole movie." They didn't.
Toni, Toni, Toni
See the actress who played Cole's mama talking about the making of the film—and behold her actual accent.
Shyamalan puts his early home movies as extras on the DVDs of his films. Check out this one from the DVD for The Sixth Sense.
I Hear Dead People
Okay, not really, but here's the soundtrack to the film.
The Big Moment
Seriously, this is it—the big kahuna: the moment Cole reveals that he. sees. dead. people.
Donnie Wahlberg's Transformation
Don't really remember what Donnie Wahlberg looked like before dropping oodles of weight for the movie? Well, check out him as Vincent and then look back at his pop star days.