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More Supernatural Horrors from the Aisle Seat

Plus: Readers on The Blair Witch Project in a Mammoth Mail Bag!

By Andy Dursin

The success of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT last weekend already has the media proclaiming it the second resurrection of the Horror Film this decade. Unfortunately, in the wake of SCREAM, we received a handful of low-rent rip-offs, and BLAIR WITCH stands to do the same if the studios look upon this low- low-budget indie film in the same way. Curiously, despite the movie's amazing financial performance (the result of a shrewd marketing campaign and word-of-mouth), there was a quick and fierce backlash to the movie from many audiences, including a lot of Aisle Seat readers who have their two cents in this week's Mail Bag. Read on for that, and also about, for my money, the most fully satisfying spookfest of '99, which came out of nowhere to become the #1 grossing film of the weekend. For the first time in a while, it was the movie -- and not the media -- that was the result of that surprise.

In Theaters

THE SIXTH SENSE (***1/2 of four): Even though there was no hype, no websites blaring its existence forth, M.Night Shymalan's THE SIXTH SENSE arrives as the first genuinely haunting--and moving--supernatural drama of the year, a real sleeper that not only proves that child actors can still give outstanding performances in this day and age, but also that Bruce Willis can act as well as any leading man, and true chills can be generated in PG-13 rated thrillers minus explicit violence and special effects.

It's a subtle, understated ghost story involving young Haley Joel Osment (a newcomer who delivers a phenomenal performance), who possesses the ability to see those unfortunate souls who have yet to completely depart from our plane of existence. Help comes in the form of psychologist Bruce Willis, who sees in Osment the opportunity at righting a bad experience he suffered months before -- failing to pay attention to a patient who seemed to have suffered from some of the same visible symptoms as the young boy. Without giving much more away, Willis and Osment try to come to grips with his unique ability, while Osment's mother (Toni Collette) worries about her son's mental health, and Willis attempts to reconcile his own failing marriage with Olivia Williams.

Call it a throwback, but THE SIXTH SENSE does what great filmmaking should: develop rich characterizations, keep the audience guessing, and play its cards slowly but surely. Wonderfully photographed, lyrically underscored by James Newton Howard (in one of the year's best film scores, which refuses to cave into the overstated melodramatic cues we typically get in films like this), and backed by an engrossing script by Shymalan, THE SIXTH SENSE unfolds like a good book, drawing you into its world casually, and without explicitly telling us everything that?s going on.

It helps that Shymalan (making his first big-studio picture here) gets a huge boost from a collection of great performances: Osment is remarkable as the tormented young boy, while Collette and Williams lend able support. The biggest surprise, however, is Willis, who renders a calm, collected role with a striking sensitivity. Needless to say, it's his finest performance to date, which makes the film's "twist conclusion" even more emotional (seasoned movie-goers will see it coming from a mile away, but it makes sense given the story and will make repeat viewing an intriguing experience).

The chills generated in the movie are brief but stay with you long after the credits are over (I actually found it at least as disturbing, in its depiction of the supernatural, as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), but THE SIXTH SENSE is a lot more than your usual haunted house movie. The movie has an undercurrent of resonance and subtlety that few studio-manufactured products possess, and its climax -- which, for a change, isn't about effects, car chases, and pounding Dolby soundtracks -- comes as an unexpected surprise. In a season to date that has been chock full of everything except a great movie, THE SIXTH SENSE isn't just a minor success, it's also the best film of the summer. (PG-13, 114 mins)


THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (**): It's ironic that Michel Legrand scored the original THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, since Bill Conti's abysmal music in this slick but flat remake is the most inappropriate score written for a cool double-crossing romantic-thriller since NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, which was scored by -- of course -- Michel Legrand.

Featuring -- for no discernable reason -- Flamenco passages (why?), '80s-ish electric guitars, blaring saxophones, and a distinct lack of connection with the drama onscreen (one sequence sports a laughable warbling trumpet, a la a '30s MGM Mickey Rooney picture), Conti's soundtrack is a total disaster in a movie that cried out for the silky strings of a John Barry soundtrack to make up for the lack of heat between the two leads.

Pierce Brosnan is sauve, all right, as the debonair Thomas Crown, but he's so cool that he never conveys a real person. Rene Russo flexes her acting muscles (and displays her body for the first time in her career) but never generates any chemistry with the detached Brosnan, who could have been appearing in a Timex watch commercial for all the excitement he brings to the role. (Maybe his producing chores were too much to bear?).

The settings are pleasant, though, and John McTiernan's leisurely pacing would have been sufficient had the movie worked. Needless to say, it doesn't, with most of it plodding along without any tension or suspense, much less romance. With two stars who fail to click and a score that at its worst sounds like it was written for a McDonald's commercial, this THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR is more of a bore than a bang. (R, 114 mins).


Mail Bag: Mixed Reaction for THE BLAIR WITCH (SPOILERS!)

It's curious, I didn't receive one email that said my criticisms of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT weren't valid. Instead, I got a handful of emails saying the movie was far worse than I had written! Please do yourself a favor, however, do not read on if you don't want to know the ending for this movie, as there are SPOILERS ahead (you have been warned!!).

>From Steve Stromberg (Strombates@aol.com)

    Hi Andy, This week's reviews are thoughtfully written and do not give too much away--a habit that a lot of newspaper reviewers do because they don't write well and aren't quite sure what their jobs are.

    I liked Arlington Road more than you did and when I thought about how Robbins and Cusack sucked Bridges in, plying him with wine about where his values came from while they drank milk and after his girlfriend is mysteriously killed (how did they do that anyway?) and Cusack reminds Bridges that "We're here for you." I thought its weakness was the newspaper and tv reportage at the end; it reminded me of The Parallax View which ended pretty much the same way with Warren Beatty murdered and the blame for a presidential candidate assassination blamed on his conspiracyparanoia. They should have just cut it off when the actual film ended, probably with Bridges' son being taken away and Robbins and Cusack on their front porch with Cusack wanting to go somewhere quiet.

    I thought the Blair Witch Project was--at 82 minutes--too long. For me it fell into the category of a good hour long Twilight Zone. I got to the point where I started to not like them but somehow the filmmakers pulled me out of there and got me to care again. I'm still debating with friends as to which part of Josh was wrapped in that piece of shirt (her reaction to this discovery was truly chilling)? The ending was rounded out well when you remembered the first man interviewed and how he explained the killer couldn't look into his/her victim's eyes so there's dumb old Mike standing with his face to the wall while the film runs out. I hope there is a sequel but that it solves the killings and we aren't led down another path of hopelessness. I will look better on tv simply because the film's register is video and will fit the home screen without missing a third of the movie due to lack of letter-boxing.

>From Jean-Michel Cavrois ( Jmcavrois@aol.com):

    Dear Andy,

    I found in your critic of The Blair Witch Project much of my own thoughts concerning that "movie", but I'll be more radical. Sorry, but Blair Witch is no cinema. The so-called directors make no aesthetic or artistic experience. They use nothing of the possibilities provided by today's cinema. The complex where I've seen Blair Witch programmed it in their "Dolby Digital" biggest theater, and I was so frustrated because I had really to do an effort in order to be scared! The movie seemed so "tiny" in here! And I won't talk about the three characters, which I found antipathic and pathetic, especially "fat-ass-Heather", who I'd have loved to slap. It was everything I hate about indie pictures: fake spontaneity. Few years ago, French director Jean-Teddy Filippe produced a series called "Les documents interdits" (Forbidden Documents). These were "real" documents accounting for supernatural events. First, it was short, and then, TV-programmers had the genius not to warn the audience that these documents were false. It had a tremendous success, both critically and publicly. But, when I paid my ticket to watch Blair Witch, I knew it was fake, because the directors had explained everywhere how they did that flick. Well, had they left more ambiguity, maybe today I'd be more indulgent. Anyway, yesterday night, I made a double-feature program: The Exorcist and David Lynch's Lost Highway, and you know what? It scared the shit out of me, because Friedkin and Lynch both know how to create a world inside the screen and suck you into it. Sanchez and his buddy just played to scare three actors in a dark forest. How poor! How non-creative!

    Oh God, it was so long an e-mail! Sorry, but it was really tough for me to really express in English why I truly hate Blair Witch.

>From John in St.Louis (JohnMGM@aol.com):

    I love horror movies. And as a horror fan I must sift through a lot of crap to find a gem. Blair Witch Project is no gem. I agree with you that BWP has been over-hyped. But I disagree as to the films quality and your 3-star rating.

    BWP proves P.T.Barnum was right. Its nice to see a horror movie skip the effects, but in the case of BWP all we are left with is non-acting, in a non-movie, sans effects, but also sans logic, wit or craft.

    I suppose BWP would have been an interesting "short", but at nearly 90 minutes, its deadly dull.

After thinking more about this movie, I'd say that I found the concept for THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to be an intriguing one. Going back to using one's imagination is a simple idea but it happens so infrequently now that the movie was effective for me just in that regard. The execution of the concept, however, could have been more effective -- as I wrote last week, the characters were idiots, the scares were brief (though effective), and the general interplay between the three leads was grating. (I will speak nothing more of Heather Donahue's whiny heroine, who a lot of people wanted to see axed!). I don't know how talented the filmmakers of TBWP are, since indeed, there is a noted lack of craft evident in the movie -- virtually anyone could have gone outside and shot what they did with a camcorder. We'll see in the sequel (prequel?) how and if they rise to the challenge.

In the meantime, my suggestion of remixing the sound for TBWP was greeted with indifference?

>From Zaphod98 <zaphod98@earthlink.net>

    Sadly, to go surround with the sound mix of this film might disturb the realism of the sound as is - would a camcorder or DAT w/boom mic be able to record source material in surround? While it might be more dramatically potent to remix in surround, it might also, in a somewhat semantic way, break from the "realism" of the "documentary". Just a thought....

>From Robby at Sony:

    I think a surround mix would totally spoil Blair Witch. The whole idea behind it was to create something scary but believeable, something that was so well thought out and produced that people unfamiliar with the concept might mistake it for real. Part of that is a mono sound mix created to sound like it was actually recorded through the single mike on the student's video camera. In fact what scared me the most was the final scene where the girl was running down the stairs carrying the 16mm camera, but the sound was still coming from the video camera on the ground, getting louder as she got closer to the bottom of the stairs creating this slowly building sound of terror. A surround mix would totally destroy the believeability and unique feel of the film. It would be no different than colorizing the black and white 16mm footage within the film, or adding CG ghosts. That's not the intent of the creators.

Yes, but if their intent ever WAS to have a stereo soundtrack, did they even have the funds to record one? And one other thing -- a lot of camcorders now have full stereo capability, and given that these are filmmaking students who one would think would be techno-savvy, wouldn't you think they'd have two- channel recording methods? I only mention this because the sounds were sometimes so muffled in the film soundtrack. I've also received some interesting comments related to other topics I've been writing about over the last month or so (LAKE PLACID, ALIENS, THE HAUNTING)?

>From Chris Kinsinger (76263.2355@compuserve.com): Dear Andy,

    Your review of "The Haunting" is right on the money. I enjoyed the film quite a bit, basically because I'm a sucker for great production design, and when a movie looks this good, I'm willing to be very forgiving of other flaws. I'd see it again just to get another tour of the house on the big screen.

    But if the filmmakers had seriously wanted to scare the audience, the film would have been shot in black and white, and about half of the CGI effects deleted.

    As it is, there is some fine acting, a couple of genuinely suspenseful moments, Catherine Zeta Jones, magnificent production design & cinematography, and a cameo by Bruce Dern. Too bad I can't also say that Jerry Goldsmith's score was even better than "Poltergeist". That would have helped. Great reviews, Andy!

>From Randall Derchan (DSPY007@aol.com):

    I can't believe you actually gave time and space to that offensive and vulgar piece of junk, Lake Placid. The film has no redeeming qualities and fails horribly as a spoof or horror comedy. The worst sitcom type humor with awful, unfunny dialogue and repulsive insults including breast jokes, fat humor and seeing Betty White talk like a gutter mouth only tends to prove she's over doing her career move in trying to break away from her ditzy Golden Girls image. A waist of time for anyone considering seeing it. How you can even eat popcorn while watching this dreck is being me. Ottman's score was the best part of this rubbish, but using the Jaws motifs is as cliche and unfunny than nice old ladies cussing. Another missfire for this summer. The 14 year old invasion strikes again.

I have nothing against John Ottman -- he's done some great work, but I found his LAKE PLACID score to be a totally uninteresting assemblage of bland suspense cues and a love theme that sounded almost anti- romantic. Perhaps the director (Steve Miner, who was at the helm of Ottman's HALLOWEEN: H20 disaster) didn't know what he was making and, in turn, told Ottman to write a formulaic score that just played by the numbers. Who knows? (and in light of the movie's box-office receipts, who cares?).

>From Josh Gizelt (Josh.Gizelt@gte.net):

    If I am not mistaken, Alan Dean Foster's novelization of the original "Alien," the only one of the books I have read, clears up Mr. Rgutowski's questions about why Newt didn't appear appreciably older from the time we see her first to when Ripley discovers her. Furthermore, comments made by Ripley herself in this version confirm them...

    Hypersleep does not exist to avoid boredom in really long deep space journeys. Hypersleep instead exists to protect weak human bodies from the stresses of hyperspace, and (probably more importantly) save money on supplies (food, clothing, etc). The implication is that the Nostromo was probably on a two month mission, while the Sulaco, traveling directly to LV-426 was only taking a week or two. What good would the Colonial Marines be if it took them a year or two to respond to a distress call?

    Regarding the opening of "Aliens..." I know that I am coming from a different point of view than most people. Having had the laserdisc of "Aliens" for several years, I am much more used to the colony scenes at the beginning than most people, many of whom are just seeing this footage for the first time. I don't see "Aliens" as being so much of a mystery. I mean, when you're watching the theatrical version and they enter the colony compound, the title of the film should give you a hint as to what might have happened. I think that the colony scenes do add something. I think they add a sense of what was lost, what Weyland-Yutani considers expendable. The children playing around, driving BigWheels where they shouldn't... well, they all get used for chest-bursters

NEXT TIME ON THE AISLE SEAT... More reviews, plus comments from Michael Matessino on Kenneth Johnson's V. Until then, send all comments to dursina@att.net and have a good one!


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