November 22, 2010

The Sixth Sense -- not even as haunting as Ghost

And that was a chick flick, for god's sake. I watched The Sixth Sense for the first time in a long while, probably the first I've watched it all the way through in one sitting, as it's pretty boring. I figured I'd give it a fair hearing since it's one of the post-1992 movies that people say is still a good thriller, and I'd like to find as many exceptions to the general trend of terrible movies since then, especially in genres that need an element of the sublime in them.

Well, first let me point to a handful of movies that have bucked the trend after 1992 toward emotionally empty thriller and horror movies. In order to stand somewhat above the zeitgeist, it takes someone unusual. (When the zeitgeist itself is pushing things in an exciting direction, even movies and albums that are put together by committees aren't half-bad.)

For supernatural thrillers, who else would make any good ones during this time except for David Lynch? I haven't seen Lost Highway in awhile, but Mulholland Drive was gripping. That Winkie's Diner scene alone is spookier than all of the Saw series combined. The only major downside I found in these two was their urban settings. I showed earlier that an interest in the pastoral and a disdain for the urban tracks the violence level. Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, both made during rising-crime times, benefit from the antiquated suburban and rural settings that a gothic narrative is naturally suited to.

As for where the thriller shades into the horror movie, Wes Craven made not only Scream but also his New Nightmare a year earlier. Scream is good enough to watch, but it's not unsettling since the characters are too self-aware and there is no supernatural element at all. In New Nightmare, the characters are aware of how famous and cliched horror movies had become by the peak of the crime rate in the early 1990s, but their complacent meta-awareness is shattered when the supernatural evil contained in the Nightmare on Elm Street narrative begins to break into the natural world and haunt the real-life actors and crew of the film series.

(Candyman, made at the peak of the crime rate in 1992, explored the same theme of a supernatural force returning to kill in the real world as a reminder of his existence after people had become too smug and self-aware about urban legends. Still, this one, like the Clive Barker-inspired Hellraiser movies -- or the first two, which I've seen, anyway -- suffers from a main villain who talks like a clingy homosexual instead of a powerful demon.)

Those three or four post-'92 movies are about all that comes to mind, though. After a closer watch tonight, here are some off-the-cuff reasons for why The Sixth Sense doesn't come close to making the cut.

- As with the Lynch movies, the setting is urban, and brownstones are far less likely to be haunted than the woods. It's not impossible, as we saw in Ghostbusters, but it's a real uphill battle to convince the audience. Furthermore, since the movie was shot after the crime rate had been plummeting for nearly a decade, the urban setting doesn't look gritty or threatening at all -- not like in Rocky, made during armageddon times. It rather looks like a brochure for the explosion of gentrification and white flight back into the cities that began once the violence level had dropped through the floor.

- The total ban against synthesizer music since alternative killed off rock music, and gangsta killed off rap music, has really crippled the thriller and horror genres. Its timbre is inherently spooky because it lies in the "uncanny valley" between clearly organic sounds like a flute and clearly artificial ones like early computerized speech. Some movies can pull off a good piano-only score, but this is harder to do since pianos don't benefit from inherent spookiness. Even a so-so synth song like the Ghostbusters theme can strike enough of a creepy note that it doesn't need to be a masterpiece otherwise. (I'm thinking of the part that builds suspensefully before "I ain't afraid of no ghosts.")

- Too much quick and jumpy editing, not enough lingering. There's a shot of a man turning a doorknob at the top of some stairs, then without even a dissolve we see him seated and working away in the basement. This pervades the movie, and other recent movies. Obviously it's just some silly fad that NYU film school dorks fell in love with. To truly build suspense, we need longer shots that track the characters' movements. When the characters in a gothic novel descend a staircase, we get all sorts of detail about the texture and sound of the stairs, how a noxious fog hangs visibly just below the ceiling of the stairwell, the candle that the person has brought in a vain attempt to see clearly, how they descend faster and faster in order to get the hell out of the creepy claustrophobic space, until it feels like they're in freefall rather than making steps, and so on. Cutting away every fraction of a second to another scene so remote from the previous one in time and space utterly dissipates whatever tension there might have been.

- The ghosts aren't evil by disposition or even by deed. They're simply misunderstood souls who want to establish communication with certain of the living. This makes the ghost-seer more like a well-trained marriage or family counselor than a shaman, an exorcist, or a Faustian character who wants to join them in their evil.

- Related to the above, there is little emphasis on temptation and sin, crime and punishment, trust and betrayal, or any of the grander themes of human narratives. A more quotidian role for ghosts in driving the plot cannot call up the sublime, only a somewhat flaccid and preachy message that more communication is the best therapy for relationship sadness. This fake memento mori aspect of the movie, laid on so thick yet solemnly, also ruined any potential that the Saw movies might have had. At the end of Aliens, we don't need a narrator to walk us through a sequence of shots to tell us how fragile life is and how much we take it for granted. It's already been worked seamlessly into the action and dialogue, like Hudson's neverending gallows humor.

Other things too, but those were the main ones. It was watchable, but definitely not an exception to the trend. For that I say go with Mulholland Drive or Wes Craven's New Nightmare.


  1. great post! although i somewhat don't entirely understand your disposition

  2. Ugh, M Night is the most dreadful regurgitator of garbage in modern cinematic times. Sixth Sense wss a piece of crap and most annoying was the fact that so many people raved about it. Night's characterizations are pathetic. I can only presume, after enduring his movies, that the dude seriously has NO social skills and an utter lack of human understanding. All of which is the ideal combination of traits to succeed with today's younger cyber-generations.

  3. Agree with Unmarried Man. I think Shymalan has naked pics of a studio exec and a donkey or something else damning that allows him to continue to receive funding. I had seen spoilers on The Sixth Sense prior to watching the actual movie. As I can't compare, I think it made the movie worse, but I don't think it made it that much worse. Spoilers can't ruin a bad movie.

  4. Regarding M. Night's work: The one film in his oeuvre that will stand the test of time is UNBREAKABLE.

  5. The Sixth Sense is an exceptional horror film. You've pointed out a lot of good techniques that other horror films have used successfully, but these techniques aren't necessary even if they are effective.

  6. To call it a horror movie is a complete degradation of the genre. Is it a bad movie? Not really. Were we tricked in the end? Quite possibly. Was there some suspense and tension? Occasionally. Does any of that make it a horror movie? Only so much as the same elements, and the inclusion of spirits, make "Ghost" a horror movie...and I think everyone can agree that's nowhere near the mark. I remember the hype for the movie and, as a horror buff, I was excited for something possibly unique and truly scary. I kept waiting, throughout the whole viewing, for the scary part. Something, anything. I liken the experience to the same lead-up to and subsequent disappointment with "Blair Witch". Don't get me started on how silly I found the whole concept of that movie. I spent most of the time thinking how stupid the urban/suburbanites were.


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