I saw dead people, you saw dead people, we all saw dead people.
I don’t know anyone who didn’t see the The Sixth Sense in theaters when it was released in the summer of 1999. Even at the time it was obvious the film was a milestone moment for genre cinema, that rarest of instances where a horror film captures the zeitgeist and changes the way everyone talks about and views movies.
For better or worse, the “twist ending” became a powerful tool for screenwriters and, as far as I can recall, the film’s success also ushered in the era of marketing films based on how much their endings were likely to blow our minds.
The film’s success was a double-edged sword for M. Night Shyamalan who was immediately hailed as a possible heir to Steven Spielberg only to be pigeonholed as ‘that twist-ending guy’ at the same time. You also couldn’t mention his name without some idiot saying “M. Night Shama-lama-ding-dong”, an unfortunate and irritating occurrence that continues to this day.
As for the numbers, they’re astounding. The film raked in $293,506,292 domestically and $379,300,000 internationally for a whopping $672, 806,292 total haul. And that’s off a $40 million production budget!
*Admittedly, The Sixth Sense ranks 3rd all-time domestic gross under Jaws and The Exorcist when you account for inflation, but considering these are 90’s dollars, I hope you inflation nerds that I know are ready to pounce can at least admit this is hugely impressive. And in terms of total gross, The Sixth Sense may still win out in the end (I await your math on this).
As comparison, James Wan’s most successful film to date, The Conjuring, which was considered a massive hit by Warner Bros. only hits at $137, 400,141 domestic. Hardly a stone’s throw away.
So what was the secret of The Sixth Sense‘s success? While no one can say with certainty, I would suggest that the late 90’s was still a time when stars could open a film. Bruce Willis was still hugely bankable while Toni Collette had firmly become an indie it-girl, bringing some credibility to her first studio picture and what may have otherwise been seen as a goofy genre movie. Of course you can’t underestimate some very good word-of-mouth, decent reviews and, an honest to god cracking good script from Shyamalan.
Looking at the movie landscape now, one wonders whether a horror film could ever achieve this level of financial success again. The marketplace is completely fractured, there are a million streaming options from literally every era of movies, and the studio system is far less inclined to push anything that’s not a franchise tent pole, or pre-existing IP. Oh yeah, and then there’s piracy. If horror films of the future never edge The Sixth Sense out of the top spot, it’s likely because of how movie distribution has changed since it was released.
The popular narrative is that M. Night Shyamalan’s career has been a spiral downwards both in terms of quality and financial rewards. While I respectfully disagree on the quality front, it’s worth noting that following the unprecedented financial success of The Sixth Sense, he really had nowhere to go but down.
As Shymalan continues to make his great escape from director’s jail with first The Visit and now the critically acclaimed Split (review), hitting this weekend, I think it’s worth breaking with the popular narrative to reflecting on the nearly 20 year legacy of one of American’s most successful horror directors.