The Sixth Sense: The problem with most horror films these days is that they seem to feel that disgust and fear are interchangeable; that waving a few severed limbs or some intestines at an audience will have the same effect as engaging that audience’s imagination and playing on its deepest fears. Just how wrong this attitude is has been fully demonstrated over the past few months by the runaway success of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. By word of mouth, I had high hopes for this film, and I was not disappointed. Its tale of a little boy who "sees dead people" is not only eerie and chilling, but well-written, brilliantly acted and, perhaps most remarkably of all, as full of heart and compassion as it is of terror - and all of it done with a bare minimum of grue. Watching this film – which, I am not ashamed to confess, scared the hell out of me – I was aware of a growing sense of wonder and delight. That an attempt had been made to create a film whose object was as much to move its audience as it was to frighten and disturb it was commendable; that the attempt had succeeded so well was a rare joy. As a ghost story, The Sixth Sense is a marvel, pushing exactly the right button time and again. It even gets away with two of the most obvious ploys imaginable: the dog bolting from something that we can’t see, and that most primal of terrors, there’s something under the bed. On a more subtle level, the film also understands the potential of aural horror: a whispered message on a tape recorder creates a truly shivery moment. But this isn’t just a fear-film. It carries themes about the nature of human relationships, about the tragedy and unfairness of life, of everyone’s need for a second chance. And it contains some of the best acting I’ve seen for some time. Haley Joel Osment is quite extraordinary as Cole. It’s a performance that ought to win him awards, but probably won’t; not with the double black mark against him of his age and his appearance in a horror movie. Until now, I’ve felt that Martin Stephens’ performance as Miles in The Innocents (which, for the record, is still the scariest film I’ve ever seen) was the best ever given by a child in a horror movie. Osment’s effort, however, takes the prize for the sheer scope of the performance. The entire movie rests upon his fragile shoulders, and he rises to the occasion brilliantly. Cole’s every action carries conviction, from his gallant but ultimately futile attempt to ward off his ghostly tormentors with religious objects stolen from churches, to the way he gathers his courage before making contact with his latest visitor. Every word, every expression is believable. He suffers, and the audience suffers right along with him. When he finally smiles towards the end of the film, it’s like a diamond shining in the darkness. And matching Osment all the way is Bruce Willis in a restrained, emotional performance that is close to being the best of his career. Indeed, it seems that for many people, Willis’ work is the biggest surprise of the film. (On this point I’m inclined to agree with Sydney Morning Herald critic Paul Byrnes, who argued that Willis can act; it’s just that a lot of the time he doesn’t bother. But then, if you can earn squillions without getting out of second gear, why strain yourself?) The scenes which Willis and Osment play together are the very heart of the film, as Cole begins to comes to terms with his rare and terrifying gift, and Malcolm Crowe realises that fate has given him a second chance. Although The Sixth Sense is largely a two-person story, Toni Collette lends sterling support as Cole’s frazzled, frumpy, adoring mother, who knows her child is something extraordinary, yet cannot even begin to understand him. The precious, loving relationship of the two is beautifully delineated in the dinner-table scene, when Cole simply will not lie to his mother, despite the almost overwhelming temptation to do so. The film’s cinematography, by Tak Fujimoto, adds enormously to the atmosphere, exploiting the faintly Gothic feel of the Philadelphia locations. I’m not a big fan of the work of James Newton Howard, but his score here is more understated than usual, highlighting the film’s unsettling scenes without ever becoming intrusive. Overall, The Sixth Sense is a rich and rewarding piece of film-making. And apart from its many other virtues, the film is an audacious piece of sleight-of-hand, an exercise in cinematic misdirection all the more laudable for the fact that it plays fair with its audience all the way through. Frightening, touching, full of unexpected twists, The Sixth Sense saves its best for last, closing with a scene that is not only heartbreaking in its implications, but likely to leave a stunned audience realising that the film they have just been watching is not at all the film they thought they were watching….

Lake Placid: I wish I could come up with something more original, but after seeing Lake Placid only twenty four hours after The Sixth Sense, I can think of no more appropriate opening line than "from the sublime to the ridiculous". I expected very little of this film, and that’s exactly what it delivered. To be fair, there were a couple of things about it that I did like. The crocodile effects were, in the main, pretty good. I was particularly pleased that most of them were achieved through animatronics and model-work (courtesy of Stan Winston), not CGI, giving substance to the killer croc and heightening the overall impact of the scenes. And I must confess, I also liked the fact that the croc is captured and not killed at the end, even if there had to be some swift, unconvincing plot-twisting to allow it to happen. Although the completely unprepared-for appearance of a second crocodile seems to be purely for the gosh-what-a-surprise last scene kicker, my suspicion is that this contrivance was really to let the film-makers to have it both ways, allowing them to blow up one crocodile while rescuing the other. Anyway, that’s about it for what I liked about Lake Placid. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what I didn’t like. The horror-comedy is a tricky business. More often than not the finished product ends up falling between two stools, being neither very funny nor very scary. This is Lake Placid’s problem in a nutshell. Its screenplay, by alleged television genius David E. Kelley, served as a salutary reminder to me of just why I gave up watching television. In making every moment of death or violence into no more than an excuse for a "witty" remark, the script not only undercuts its own potential to horrify, it makes its characters come across as a thoroughly unlikable bunch of people. The actors try hard, but really, what can they do when they’re struggling with a script that makes them look crueller and stupider every time they open their mouths? For the first half of the film, Bridget Fonda’s palaeontologist is absolutely intolerable. Her whining, shrieking and idiotic behaviour made me want to hit her. She is less irritating once the action sequences kick in, but only because she has less to say, concentrating instead upon falling into the water at every conceivable opportunity. Oliver Platt has a few mildly funny moments, but his character is never credible for a second. Betty White’s performance is nothing less than an embarrassment. Bill Pullman skates through the film with a minimum of effort. His park ranger may be the least objectionable of the characters, if only because he has less dialogue than the others do. Overall, though, I found my sympathies most with Brendan Gleeson’s Sheriff Keough. Keough opens the film by complaining that everyone seems to consider a small town sheriff a natural target for ridicule. The problem isn’t so much that the film’s other characters take that attitude, as that this attitude seems to be shared by scriptwriter Kelley, who clearly feels that subjecting Gleeson’s character to incessant abuse is the height of sophisticated wit. It is a huge relief when the crocodile takes centre stage, forcing the cast into action instead of words. Unfortunately, that action consists largely of one cliché after another. Mixed in with a string of gross-out scenes there for no other reason than to provoke a loud "Ewwww!!" from the audience are two things high on my list of Scenes We’ve Seen Quite Often Enough: a victim of an underwater assailant being dragged along above the surface (something I haven’t seen since--- Gee, I dunno, Deep Blue Sea?); and a helicopter crash (something I haven’t seen since--- Gee, I dunno, Deep Blue Sea?). The lack of imagination demonstrated throughout Lake Placid is simply infuriating. All of which begs the question, why was this film even made? Possibly because its producers were aiming it at an audience young enough not to be aware that Lewis Teague and John Sayles did all of this nearly twenty years ago, and did it so much better, with Alligator, a film superior to Lake Placid in every way. Its characters are interesting, complex, and likable; its scare scenes are scarier; its gross-outs just as gross; and its dialogue immeasurably funnier. Instead of insulting its audience’s intelligence, Alligator plays to it, knowing full well that it is being watched by people who love monster movies just as much as the guys who made it. In contrast, Lake Placid is a cynical effort by someone who hopefully will realise that he’s found his true calling writing for network television. Frankly, I think that David E. Kelley ought to stick to his mini-skirted monster. She may not be as convincing as Lake Placid’s crocodile, but she’s infinitely more horrifying.