The Sixth Sense (1999)
Once upon a time, there was a talented young director from the Philly suburbs named Manoj Nellyattu Shyamalan -- but he called himself M. Night Shyamalan, because Night is a badass middle name. Back in the late 90s, nobody had ever really heard of him. Then he made his first movie, The Sixth Sense, and then everybody was talking about him. For good reason, too, because The Sixth Sense is an awesome movie. I'd say it's sometimes brilliant, in fact. It popularized a particular twist to the point where you expect it at the end of any movie that features a ghost in any way, and I won't give it away here in case you're one of the two or three humans in America for whom it has not already been spoiled, either by references in other movies, in magazines, or by that guy who tells you the end of every movie ever. It also popularized twists in general, for better or worse.
The Sixth Sense was the movie that convinced me that Bruce Willis could act. I'd seen him in Die Hard, of course, and Hudson Hawk, and some other action movies I forget, but this was the first time I'd ever seen him in such an understated role. Willis plays Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist who, after recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound at the hands of a former patient (Donnie Whalberg, a one-scene wonder here), finds himself estranged from his wife and hanging his future on the shoulders of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled boy who has his share of secrets. Crowe asks Cole what he wants from their time together -- and Cole tells him it's not what he wants, but what he doesn't want.
Cole's working-class mother (an excellent Toni Collette) loves him with fierce determination, but she's struggling with Cole's secrecy and his troubles at school. He's bullied constantly, he's getting in trouble for drawing disturbing and violent images during art class and even his teachers are scared of him. Mysterious lesions show up on Cole's arms, leading child services to suspect his mother of abuse, and he won't tell her who's hurting him. It's a very adult sort of fear, and Collette portrays it exceptionally well.
Crowe nearly abandons Cole when the boy tells him what's really happening. Cole is plagued by ghosts. He sees them at his high school, which used to be a courthouse where people were executed. He sees them in his house, where they scare him in the middle of the night. The dead don't realize they're dead -- and it's this which leads Crowe to help Cole come to terms with his power, rather than search for some way to get rid of it.
It's a great movie. Parts of it are just terrifying. It's one of those movies that probably seems less great if you didn't see it around the turn of the millennium, because after that, dozens of movies aped its style, parodied its most well-known line ad nauseum and borrowed its final twist over and over until it's a surprise when you see a ghost movie where it doesn't happen. It's also, as far as I know, the only horror movie that -- well, let's be honest, a horror movie will never sweep the Oscars because the Academy doesn't really care how good a movie is, but it got several nominations, which is pretty much unheard of. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress for Toni Collette, Best Supporting Actor for Cole (who's really the protagonist of the film, and Osment does a fantastic job)...obviously, it didn't win anything, and I doubt anyone expected it to, but it was a breakout for our friend Manoj.
He followed that up with another good one, 2000's Unbreakable, which also stars Bruce Willis and is also on Netflix. It was a surprising take on a genre -- comics and superheroes -- that was, at the time, obscure; remember, this was well before Iron Man busted open the doors in 2008, paved the way for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and made reading comics and watching movies based on them acceptable for adults and those outside of the rather isolationist bastion of nerd culture. Then an odd thing happened, and poor Manoj began his fall from grace.
Signs, his third movie, was suspenseful and mostly pretty damn good -- but then that ending happened. Cut the last five minutes out of Signs, end it where the daughter goes upstairs, and you have a great ending that leaves the situation ambiguous. But Manoj didn't do that. It went the same way with his next movie, The Village, which I also really like, and which is also on Netflix. This one needs a scalpel taken to about ten minutes of its footage, and it's interspersed throughout, so it's kind of hard to carve this one up into something as compelling as Manoj's earlier movies. It might be the only movie where I actually stood up and yelled "FUCK YOU!" at the screen at one point. Sometime I'll have to make a viewers' guide to The Village that tells you where to fast-forward.
My sister and I decided something unfortunate had happened to Manoj, who we kind of thought of as a director who was one of us, someone to aspire to, as someone who started out making short horror movies and hit it big -- and it was cool seeing movies set in nearby Philadelphia and Bucks County. Manoj was still a talented guy, of course, but sometime between Unbreakable and Signs, his butt started talking to him. It started suggesting stuff that might work in his movies, and when he made Signs, his butt said "Hey! Manoj, let me direct the last five minutes of this thing, it'll be killer!" I wish he'd said no, but he didn't, and his butt went on to direct several scenes in The Village.
By the time Lady in the Water came out, and it was clear that Manoj's butt was doing most of the heavy lifting by that point. Like Hitchcock, he always had a little cameo in his movies. He was a doctor in The Sixth Sense, a drug dealer in Unbreakable, and so on. In Lady in the Water, he played a writer who was going to bring about a new age of world peace, and was the focus of the last quarter of the movie or so, as he's the one everyone's supposed to be protecting. Then he made The Happening (or, as it's known among my family and circle of friends, Mark Wahlberg Is The Haps), and I don't know what the happening is, exactly, but I assume it's this thing, which certainly did happen in this movie:
Then he made the live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of the best cartoons ever made and almost certainly one of the worst movies. For the last few years, studios have done this weird thing where they let him produce but not direct, or they let him direct but go out of their way to avoid putting his name on the movie, as if they can't decide if they want to coast on the reputation of his early films or if his later work is such an embarrassment that it's best to just keep his name out of it. Anyway, it's clear that Manoj's butt was given such editorial power over its owner that it grew large enough to eat him somehow, and it's currently all that's left of Manoj. Just a walking butt behind a camera. I don't know how it manages to write anything with just cheeks instead of hands, but "not very well" would certainly be one answer.
What is the moral of this sad tale? I don't know. "Don't listen to your butt when it wants to help you write a screenplay," maybe. I'd say it's more likely as simple as "Don't buy into your own hype." Writers hate their own work, and maybe there's a reason for that.
Maybe that's the moral, the bedtime story screenwriters tell their kids:
When someone tells you you're the next Hitchcock, don't fucking listen to them. You might end up like M. Night Shyamalan.
Available On: Netflix.