6 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 72


The Sixth Sense (12, selected cinemas)

Truly spooky

Mark Steyn

Reluctant to join Toby Young in danc- ing on Tina Brown's grave ('Talk of the town', 16 October), I've so far declined to talk about how no one's talking about talk — if only because, insofar as I can vaguely discern the buzz from New York, even talking about how no one's talking about talk is now a subject no one can be both- ered talking about. But, granted that, the magazine's tin ear for the zeitgeist (as they say) is quite amazing. Issue Number Two's big story? Liz Taylor. 'The magazine looks terrible,' said presidential candidate Don- ald Trump, taking a break from minor issues like the Test Ban Treaty, the global economy and so forth. `Elizabeth Taylor on the cover? Crazy. At least they didn't use a current picture of her.' You'd have thought Tina would have wised up, but no. Issue Number Three's cover? Arnold Schwarze- negger.

Arnie! Is he still making movies these days? He's certainly not making burgers: his restaurant chain, Planet Hollywood, has gone belly up — no surprise to those of us who never quite bought into the thesis that eating in the presence of Sly's thong from Rambo III or Demi's silicone implants from Striptease was somehow just like being with Sly and Demi in person. In terms of pleas- ant conversation, personal warmth and good companionship, this is probably true. But at least, round at Sly's or Demi's pad, the food would be better. Somehow, in Planet Hollywood's rubbery dried-out meat and puffy buns, Arnie and Sly had found the perfect metaphor for their own careers. The only mystery about the joint was what Bruce Willis was doing in such company. Like Sly and Arnie, he's made films where he shoots people and blows up buildings and runs around in a singlet shouting `Yip- pie-lci-ay, muthafucker!' But, unlike them, he doesn't give the impression that that this is as artistically fulfilling as a guy could wish for. To watch Arnie trying to dance in True Lies is to be given a frightening glimpse into his career prospects. Bruce is never going to be in that much trouble: he can be funny, wry, understated, even sexy in a self-knowingly cheesey sort of way. His Performance as a small-town nouveau riche contractor in Nobody's Fool, with Paul Newman, was a peach. He's self-confident enough to know not everything needs to be a star vehicle.

The Sixth Sense isn't quite in the Nobody's Fool class, but, as brilliant Philadelphia child psychologist Dr Mal- colm Crowe, Willis is less cringe-making in the role than most of the available talent. Imagine Robin Williams mugging and choking up and going all misty eyed with cute little moppet clients and you'll under- stand what Bruce has saved us from. Instead, he gives us his trademark smirk. When he's blowing punks away in Die Hard with a Vengeance, it can be, frankly, a supercilious smirk. But here he manages to produce a remarkably multi-layered smirk, hinting at scepticism, regret, insecurity and an intriguingly enigmatic attitude to his nine-year-old co-star.

When first we meet him, Dr Crowe's on top of the world. He's just been given an award from the city of Philadelphia for out- standing service by a humanitarian in the opening scene of a motion picture or some such, and, having celebrated with a $100 bottle of wine, he and his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) are about to fall into bed and crumple the sheets. At which point, they discover Vincent (Donnie Wahlberg) in the bathroom. Vincent was a child patient of Dr Crowe's, but is now fully grown — and armed. 'You failed met' he roars, and empties his gun into the doc before turning it on himself.

Casting being what it is, Vincent dies but Dr Crowe survives. But he's now riddled by self-doubt. Hoping to de-riddle himself, he takes on a new patient, a forlorn little ger- bil of a kid called Cole (Haley Joel Osment), whose problems are not a million miles away from the late Vincent's. L'il Haley Joel gives a creepily unnerving per- formance as a boy who sees dead people all around him — people who died horrible deaths and appear to him as they did at the point of death. It's a secret he's afraid to share with his mom (Toni Collette), but, gradually, he and Dr Crowe grow to trust each other enough for Cole to divulge what he sees. Director/writer M. Night Shya- malan shepherds the story along efficiently enough and, if the dark atmospherics in which he shrouds south Philly seem a little overdone, he's a dab hand at imbuing hum- drum fixtures like doorknobs with genuine menace. The menace isn't purely manipula- tive, either: after the various twists and pay-offs, you'll find yourself running the picture back and forth in your head and discovering all kinds of unobtrusive con- nections in Shyamalan's spooky images.

The picture makes a nice contrast with The Blair Witch Menace, which, in the US, it toppled as box-office champ. The Sixth Sense isn't a no-frills, low-budget produc- tion: it uses an expensive star, lurid fantasy sequences, all the glossy techniques of con-

ventional mainstream studio product. Unlike the stark, unadorned soundtrack of Blair Witch every move in this picture is underlined by James Newton Howard's cloying, syrupy score. Yet, Howard's excesses aside, The Sixth Sense makes a much better ghost story than the faux natu- ralism of Blair Witch's student video tech- niques. In this instance at least, the studios do these things better: hooray for Holly- wood.