The Best Horror Movie of 1999: The Sixth Sense

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The Best Horror Movie of 1999: The Sixth Sense

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

The decade comes to a close in decent enough fashion, featuring several films that made outsized pop cultural impacts, especially in terms of box office figures. In fact, until it was overtaken by 2017’s It, The Sixth Sense had clung doggedly to the title of the highest grossing horror film of all time (not adjusted for inflation), with a muscular $672 million. And considering that The Blair Witch Project took in $248 million earlier the same summer, that made 1999 one of the biggest years ever for the genre at the box office.

Of the other contenders this year, then, you have to give special attention to Blair Witch, a true case of audiences being utterly captivated by a new method of presentation. “Found footage” as a concept had existed for quite a while, at least since 1961’s The Connection and used to an extent in 1980’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust, but for most audiences, The Blair Witch Project was their first exposure to the idea of a feature film being presented as a recovered artifact. Combined with an extremely effective marketing campaign that established precedents for covert online advertising, where rumors were spread of the film’s veracity, otherwise rational human beings went to see Blair Witch genuinely believing that they were watching a snuff film being distributed by a major Hollywood film studio. The film became a sleeper sensation, with enthusiastic word of mouth ultimately making it one of the most profitable independent films of all time, despite a largely plotless runtime that mostly just consists of its characters wandering around in the woods. The brilliance of its closing sequence, however, along with the unresolved nature of the story’s central mystery, would go on to preserve its infamy, while providing obvious inspiration to all the prominent found footage films that would follow, from Paranormal Activity and REC to Cloverfield or Chronicle. The gimmick would gain strength in the late 2000s, peaking in the early 2010s.

Takashi Miike’s Audition likewise caused quite a stir in 1999 for its sadomasochistic-seeming approach toward cinematic violence, with content that had some critics calling for obscenity charges. Ultimately a story of extreme, inhuman romantic obsession, the film has since inspired perspectives that claim it is either a feminist or deeply misogynist work, but no one will argue that its final act torture scenes are anything other than difficult to witness.

The ferocity of Audition is nearly matched by the appetite of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, which features an unforgettably toothy performance by a cannibalistic Robert Carlyle and a captivating score from Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn. In general, this was a solid year for bigger budget, quasi-horror fare as well, from Kevin Bacon’s Stir of Echoes, to the rollicking (and increasingly championed) action-horror hybrid of The Mummy, to Tim Burton’s particularly Burtonesque reimagining of Sleepy Hollow.

After a decade that was particularly erratic in the quality of its horror offerings, it seems like we’re heading into more reliably strong territory.

1999 Honorable Mentions: The Blair Witch Project, Audition, Ravenous, Stir of Echoes, The Mummy, Sleepy Hollow, Storm of the Century, eXistenZ, The Ninth Gate

The Film: The Sixth Sense
Director: M. Night Shyamalan

It’s a shame that discussion of The Sixth Sense is today often reduced simply to mention of its famous twist ending, and its role as the film that overinflated public expectations for M. Night Shyamalan’s directorial career. To focus in on just these aspects of its legacy ignores the expert craftsmanship that makes The Sixth Sense one of the best pure supernatural horror films of the last few decades, and one of the most emotionally poignant to boot. Have the last 20 years always been kind to Shyamalan? By all means, the answer to that question is “no,” but it doesn’t diminish the fabulously well realized suspense he achieved.

The heart of The Sixth Sense is its portrayal of wounded people who are all either in some state of grief, or actively fraying at their edges. Bruce Willis’ child psychologist is haunted by his failure to help a former client and the slow deterioration of his marriage. Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) is an elementary school boy grappling with a “sixth sense” that must surely have made him question his own sanity at an age when most kids barely have a conception of sanity. Cole’s mother, Lynn, is profoundly alone and powerless, attempting to raise a son she’s afraid is experiencing some terrible trauma he’s afraid to share. She has no idea where the turn, and the constant anxiety is etched into Toni Collette’s gut-wrenching performance.

And we haven’t even mentioned any ghosts yet, have we? The ghost sequences of The Sixth Sense are utterly terrifying and crafted for maximum suspense—not only because we’re afraid of what they might do to Cole, and because we’ve already seen evidence that he’s been physically marred by these encounters in the past—but because in his mind, he has absolutely no recourse. He’s well aware that no one else can see the things he sees, and he’s painfully mature enough to know that his mother is already at wit’s end with worry over him. He desperately wants to shield Lynn from pain, even as he prays in his makeshift religious shrine for some kind of deliverance from his terrifying nightly encounters. Cole seems to understand, even as a child, that the most likely result of him divulging his secret would be ending up on medication in some kind of institution, and he’s rightly frightened of that possibility just as much as he is of the ghosts. He’s been backed into a corner, and there’s a sense that something needs to change before he simply snaps.

Haley Joel Osment conveys all this and more in a wonderful performance, all the more impressive for the fact that he was only 10 when it was filmed. He earned an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor, fittingly paired alongside Toni Collette’s Best Supporting Actress nomination, although the film ultimately took home none of the awards it was nominated for—despite being the rare instance of a horror film that was also nominated for Best Picture. None of it matters amidst the emotional resonance of the moments they share together, particularly the incredibly patient, nuanced car scene wherein Cole finally admits his secret to his mother, slowly turning her from a disbelieving woman worried about her son into a relieved co-keeper of his secret. It’s a moment of pure catharsis, as the weight of worlds comes off Lynn’s shoulders and she’s admitted into her son’s trust, bringing the pair together with hope for the future. It’s also by far the most effective dramatic payoff in any of Shyamalan’s films, although this isn’t necessarily saying much.

In the wake of The Sixth Sense, pop culture got caught up in parody—endless rephrasings of “I see dead people” and “he was dead all along!”—which seem to have caused some to forget just how chilling Shyamalan’s work could be at its best. Although it’s difficult to now approach the film from a place of ignorance when it comes to its twists, we can still appreciate the power of its performances, 20 years later.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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