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….

And You Call Yourself a Scientist