It's certainly been a good year for surprise hits. First The Matrix kung-fu chopped the box office before anyone could scoff at the idea of Keanu Reeves returning as a credible lead. Then The Mummy proved that silliness should not be an obstacle to success. And, most recently, The Blair Witch Project suddenly evolved from a no-budget shocker into a global phenomenon. Now it's the turn of M Night Shyamalan's atmospheric spook-slinger The Sixth Sense.
But who'd have thought a thriller starring Bruce Willis as a child psychologist could become a $200-million (to date) smash? After his last, fumbled stabs at playing a brainy doctor-type (Color Of Night) and sharing screentime with a troubledboy (Mercury Rising), you'd think The Sixth Sense would be the kiss of death. Thankfully, he's finally managed a decent non-action-man performance as the vulnerable and flawed Crowe, a man whose depression has left him feeling dazed and detached, not only from his wife (Williams), but from the entire world around him.
Yet the position of Willis' name on the cast list is a little misleading, because he's not really the main character. The Sixth Sense focuses primarily on the boy Cole who simply doesn't want "to be scared anymore". While the role hardly requires child actor Haley Joel Osment to go to the extremes Linda Blair went to for The Exorcist, Osment still delivers a disturbingly intense performance. He's frail and grey-skinned, with a harrowed face, whispering his lines in a small, hoarse voice. There are no cutesy concessions here: you have no problem believing that he's suffering visitations from bruised, cut-up housewives, teenagers who blew their brains out and various other grisly apparitions.
Like The Exorcist, this isn't really a gore-spattered shocker, more a slow-burning, subconscious-botherer. Most of the chills are rooted in childhood fears of that dark, dangerous, shadowy world outside the security of your own bedclothes. Although for Cole, the wraiths are very real - at least, they look very real. It's not accurate to describe this as `horror', however. Despite the shocks, there's no bad guy or supernatural bogeyman and no struggle for survival against a terrifying force. The story is simply an investigation into Cole's problem, with Crowe trying to figure out if the boy is genuinely psychic or just insane.
Consequently, it's rather ploddingly paced in places, lacking a strong dramatic thrust, flitting between Cole's trials as he clashes with his mother and Crowe's descent into depression as he grows further away from his wife. But, just as you start to wonder exactly what all the fuss is about, Shyamalan changes gear with a wonderfully conceived final act that rewards patience. Indeed, when you leave the cinema, you won't only be forgiving the movie its slower moments - you'll probably be planning to go and see it again...