August 6, 2019 The Sixth Sense – 20 Years of Surprises
A little boy softly informs us, “I see dead people,” but this cannot possibly prepare us for the surprise ending of all surprise endings. Single-handedly introducing a talented new writer-director to the world, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense arrived to nationwide theaters on Friday, August 6th, 1999, and the world of cinema was never quite the same.
Twenty years later, we all understand that walking into a Shyamalan (Signs 2002, Split 2016) film is a bit like opening up Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get. However, when he delivered the Supernatural Horror/Drama The Sixth Sense, he was not such a well-known commodity. His previous works, 1992’s Dramedy Praying with Anger and 1998’s Family Comedy Wide Awake, had not met with critical or commercial success and, for all basic purposes, Shymalan was a Hollywood unknown. It was time for the artist to step outside of the Dramedy world and try something very different.
With a phenomenal cast that was anchored by the always impressive Bruce Willis (Die Hard 1988, Pulp Fiction 1994) and the oft underrated Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine 2006, Hereditary 2018), The Sixth Sense would go on to create a star out of a young boy named Haley Joel Osment (Pay It Forward 2000, A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001). You know the story: a child psychologist (Willis) attempts to help a young boy (Osment) who is plagued by dead people.
The second highest-grossing film of 1999, behind the unbeatable Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, though it was a bit of a sleeper hit, The Sixth Sense was a commercial and critical success by all measures. Until 2017 when it was surpassed by It, the film was the highest-grossing Horror movie of all-time. Along with earning a space on a slew of lists as well as accruing endless accolades, The Sixth Sense was nominated for multiple Academy Awards and won several People’s Choice Awards. Both critics and fans alike embraced the film, sometimes for different reasons, though often with equal measures of passion.
While it is rarely the case that a commercially successful film is also held aloft for its unique and intelligent script, The Sixth Sense broke down these barriers and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America gave Shyamalan the Nebula Award for Best Script in 1999. Not to be forgotten, in 2013, fourteen years after its release, the Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay as #50 on its 101 Greatest Screenplays Ever Written list.
Whether you love The Sixth Sense or find yourself somewhat indifferent to the film, it would be unfair not to acknowledge its exceptionally intelligent and unique take on Horror. But where did the inspiration for this tale come from? Reportedly, Shyamalan has credited an episode of the then-popular, 1990’s Nickelodeon TV series Are You Afraid of the Dark? with providing the necessary muses. The episode, 1994’s The Tale of the Dream Girl, detailed a lead character who, ignored by everyone around him, does not realize that he is actually dead. In the episode’s revealing final moment, his sister, the only one who can see and communicate with him, shows him his obituary.
Interestingly for budding filmmakers, the movie was reportedly shot in sequence, despite this being somewhat of a rarity in film-making. For those that seek additional trivia, well, rumors state that Marisa Tomei was considered for the role of Lynn Sear, which ultimately went to Collette. Actor Michael Sera has also made it known that he auditioned for the role of Cole, the position ultimately filled by Osment. Willis, however, was a shoe-in for Malcolm Crowe, with Shyamalan having noted that he wrote the role specifically with the talented actor in mind.
Whatever the case, it’s hard not to see the importance of The Sixth Sense, particularly in its groundbreaking screenplay, but also for its introduction of the young writer-director Shyamalan into the Hollywood zeitgeist. He’s since gone on to have a slew of hits and misses with films such as 2002’s Signs, 2004’s The Village, 2010’s The Last Airbender, 2016’s Split, and, most recently, 2019’s Glass. Perhaps you love his work, perhaps you loathe it, but one thing is absolutely certain: thanks to The Sixth Sense you know Shyamalan’s name, and you know that he’s a man of many tricks.