AFI Top 100: The Sixth Sense

Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my general thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. For the month of October, I’ve been covering the remaining horror films, and this week’s is the final one, #89: The Sixth Sense (1999).

The Sixth Sense was a career launcher for M. Night Shyamalan—he’d made two comedy/dramas prior, but neither had a fraction of the success—though some would argue he’s learned the wrong lessons from it. His films mostly deal with the supernatural and often seem reverse-engineered from a twist, or at least some designated endpoint. But revisiting his earlier hits reveals the potential he’s wasted as a dramatic storyteller. The premise of The Sixth Sense sounds like a perfect recipe for terror: a young child is constantly haunted by his ability to see the dead. There are a few really effective scares, mostly in the second half, but it’s the dramatic scenes that make the film shine. The scene with Mischa Barton appearing in the red tent is creepy, but the real chilling scene is the following one where her cause of death is revealed at her funeral. The most memorable scene—which is ostensibly the film’s climax—is not a horrific moment of terror, but a moving conversation between Cole and his mother.

The Sixth Sense may be notorious for its twist ending, but it’s the visual storytelling, melancholic atmosphere, and brilliant performances from Willis, Osment, and Collette which make it worth revisiting.

Does It Belong on the List?

It works much better as a drama than a horror film, but it doesn’t make the cut for me as a dramatic work, so I have to say no. However, now that I’ve covered all the horror films on the list, I do have some I’d personally add:

The obvious ones:

The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and Poltergeist. The last one may be an odd choice—I’m sure most would say The Texas Chain Saw Massacre should be the Hooper to add—but I just recently caught up with Poltergeist and found it terrifying. The other two are no-brainers.

Less obvious picks: 

The Blair Witch Project: had a major impact on the genre, but is also still chilling today (watch it alone at night with the lights out and try to tell me otherwise). 

Mulholland Drive: should be on the list regardless, but is also one of the scariest films ever made.

It Follows: to my mind, the best outright horror film of the last decade.

Total wildcards:

Under the Skin: My #2 of the decade, which I called “the most unnerving, quietly terrifying film I’ve ever seen.”

Re-Animator & The Cabin in the Woods: Two perfect comedy/horror hybrids.

AFI Top 100

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