In Philly Flix, I write about films set in and around Philadelphia, with each column highlighting a different one. I’m interested not only in the quality of the films, but in how they portray Philadelphia to the rest of the world.
What’s That Jawn About?
M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout horror drama took everyone by surprise in 1999- it’s the kind of rare debut where a director seems to arrive on scene fully formed, with a style and craftmanship culled from clear influences (primarily Spielberg) but molded into something new. The Sixth Sense is remembered for many things beyond being an auspicious debut- the landmark performance of Haley Joel Osment, which earned him an academy award nomination for best supporting actor (the second youngest performer ever nominated). The film itself was nominated for best picture, one of the few horror films to ever receive the honor. The quote on which the plot hinges, “I see dead people,” was featured on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Movie Quotes, and the film itself made it into AFI’s 100 Greatest American Films. It’s easy to forget what a monumental impact this film made when it came out, considering that it seems to have faded away from the culture at large (proportionately to its director’s reputation after several misfires).
Osment plays young boy Cole Sear, who is seen by Child Psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe for a case of acute anxiety. Cole is small, nervous, unliked and bullied at school. As the two grow closer, Cole finally reveals his secret, the source of his anxiety. He’s a medium between worlds- he sees dead people. They wander around like normal people, seeing only what they want to see, not knowing they’re dead.
Beyond its many recognitions, the movie is most famous for its twist ending (SPOILERS for a 17 year old movie follow). Dr. Crowe was dead the whole time! He’s a ghost himself, drawn to Cole as other ghosts are because they’re aware of his special power. I remember when I first saw it- some may have seen it coming all along, but my 12 year old self was taken completely by surprise. I felt convinced it was one of the greatest movies of all time.
It is easy though to confuse slick, tricky storytelling for a great story, and I think in the end The Sixth Sense holds up more like a spooky bedtime story than a great film. Like the girl whose head falls off after removing the ribbon around her neck. Plus, re-watching it and knowing exactly what’s coming is a distracting experience. It’s just impossible to go back and see it with fresh eyes. Some things just make no sense, like how did I buy that Dr. Crowe was assigned to this kid and shows up at his house but never speaks to his mother? The movie becomes something to be picked apart and annoyed by, rather than an enduring horror film.
What I did pick up on this time was Cole’s special gift as an allegory for hypersensitivity in children. How some kids are simply more vulnerable to their surroundings, and the cursed feeling that can come about when you’re a child gifted with a certain kind of sight. Cole sees dead people like some children see the unspoken traumas carried around by the adults in their lives. In this way it reminds of 2014’s The Babadook. The main character of Amelia in that film is like what would happen if Cole grew up, became a father, but had some new horrible trauma happen in his life that re-triggered his special gift. Finally, like The Babadook, The Sixth Sense ends up being more a drama that uses horror elements to explore its themes, rather than a pure horror film itself.
One of the saving graces of the film is the way that cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (Jonathan Demme’s regular DP, who had already captured the city beautifully in 1994’s Philadelphia) portrays the barren trees and windy streets of the Society Hill area in autumn, where most of the movie was filmed. He makes the city look like every bit of its three hundred plus year history- playing up the city’s colonial history and turning it into a playground for angry ghosts with unfinished business and untold hurts.
Cole’s mom is played by Toni Collette, the underrated and consistently great Australian actress. She gets the look of a working class South Philly mom down just right. The makeup, the nails, the big hair. She looks kind of like she just walked off the set of Goodfellas. Her mannerisms feel true.
M. Night Shyamalan grew up in Lower Merion, and attended Episcopal Academy. Most of his films are set in the area. Philadelphia is Shyamalan’s muse like San Francisco was Hitchcock’s (his penchant for appearing in cameo roles in his own films further apes the Master Of Suspense’s style). He does right by the city- capturing the common, moderate people of the city; Its old American values, and its ancient sort of feeling. It’s a haunted, spooky place, and makes it the perfect setting for Shyamalan’s films.
Nada. I was listening and waiting for something, but all we really get is your typical bland mid atlantic. Bruce Willis, who hails from Salem County in South Jersey, has a bit of area flare in his natural dialogue, but nothing distinct or noticeable. In fact as I am writing this, I may do away with this section altogether, as the answer is always “Nothing Doin.”
Its Society Hill location earns this a Jim’s Cheesesteak award. It’s delicious, famous, and well known for good reason. It’s not the best, but it sure is dependable and consistent. Plus the wasted people who stumble in with the munchies every weekend night act kind of like dead people who don’t know they’re dead.