Welcome to ... the Godlight Zone!

"Stigmata," "The Sixth Sense" and "Stir of Echoes" give us that New Age religion.

Published September 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When Steven Spielberg made "The Twilight Zone -- the Movie" back in
1983, it flopped. Rod Serling's TV series had held fantasy fans
in a death grip since the early-'60s, but by the time of the film, the
all-important youth audience had moved on. Apocalyptic sci-fi, high school
slasher flicks and chest-bursting creature features supplied the gore du
jour that satisfied teen palates more than Serling's
suggestive form of dark escapist fare.

Sixteen years later, all these subgenres have burned out or
gone the route of self-parody, and droves of moviegoers are
drinking in souped-up cover versions of Serling's Greatest
Hits. The top three films at the box
office for the weekend ending Sept. 12 were "Stigmata,"
"The Sixth
and "Stir of Echoes." In "Stigmata," a with-it Pittsburgh hair
stylist is either demonically or angelically possessed. In "The Sixth Sense,"
a lonely Philadelphia boy who interacts mostly with dead people learns how to
stop worrying and love the ghosts. In "Stir of Echoes," a stressed-out
blue-collar Chicago family man, with another little boy who also sees and
speaks to the deceased, becomes clairvoyant himself and lays bare an ugly

These movies draw crowds partly because they sound a nostalgic
chord, and not just for Serling: An MGM executive chalked up the surprise
boffo opening of "Stigmata" to baby boomers yearning for an "Omen" or
"Exorcist" fix. But younger audiences who've never experienced movie terror
outside of slice-and-dice extravaganzas may show up for the novelty -- and
find a weird, pseudo-deep kind of comfort in having their fears of life

Yet none of these films tested my quease quotient. (And when it
comes to horror, I'm an easy mark: gullible and squeamish.) Each of them
merely takes a basic horror situation, sets it in a weathered locale, adds
old-fashioned supernatural motifs and finishes everything off with a New Age
twist that re-asserts the existence of an afterlife, complete with limbo and
redemption. If you've ever followed "The Twilight Zone," you look for the
series' trademark O. Henry turnaround -- but in these films, you find it way too early. Most of the classic "Twilight Zone" episodes were half-hours; the briefest of these films clocks in at 100 minutes.

It's more than thinness and familiarity that makes these movies dull.
Serling's genius was to let subterranean tensions out and let 'em rip; these
films' folly is to let them out and tame them. To watch Serling's series in
reruns is to feel like a fraidy-cat again, a child in a semi-stable world
whose grownups misguide you into ignoring the dangers beneath placid
surfaces. Unlike traditional climaxes, the endings of the episodes aren't
always happy or unhappy. Much of the time they are uncertain: They
don't reassert the status quo, and they rarely rub your nose in religiosity.

These movies do. The spiritual realm -- so bracing and ambiguous
when it entered the physical realm in Serling's series, or in big-screen
horror classics like "The Innocents" -- becomes, in these pictures, a sphere
as easy to grasp and as thudding as a kickball. The fledgling horror
moviemakers literalize everything, both to impart an unearned gravity to
their scripts and to foster the illusion that, beneath the anarchy and
ephemera of millennial life, we're still part of a Great Chain of Being. It's
as if they want to bear out our suspicions that the world has gone to hell
and uplift us with a glimpse of peace in paradise.

Even gratuitous set pieces make you wonder whether you're seeing a
bad patch of loose threads or a failed tapestry of faith. In "Stir of
Echoes," for example, a community of clairvoyants gets a momentous
introduction only to disappear from view. Of course, this may just be sloppiness
on the part of the writer-director, David Koepp, who adapted "Twilight Zone"
contributor Richard Matheson's original novel. But more likely, Koepp wanted
to use this group of savants to solidify an audience's belief in the
intersection of the netherworld and our world.

Unfortunately, all this spirit-mongering tends to produce not
mystery or terror but bogus reassurance. These movies end up saying that dead
people invade our lives solely to beg for help, no matter how violent their pleas. Even the pictorially striking, superficially daring
"Stigmata," which spews venom at corrupt clerics in the Roman Catholic
Church, rests on the burning desire of a deceased renegade priest -- and that of a dedicated Vatican investigator -- to get out the real Word of Christ.

Intermittently, the films' worn-out urban settings, along with their
emphasis on broken families, conjure an authentic '90s aura. (Matheson's 1958 book "Stir of Echoes" took place in California tract-home suburbia; the
movie is set in a battered working-class enclave of the Windy City.) But the pictures
ultimately arrive at a rueful fantasyland in which people who can settle
accounts and accept their deaths indisputably go to a better place. Nowhere
is that truer than in "The Sixth Sense," which stayed on top of the
box-office charts for longer than any film since "Titanic" and in six weeks
has grossed $200 million.

Of course, as reviews and word-of-mouth have spelled out to all but
resolute non-moviegoers, this is an elaborate trick picture about the
relationship between a second-sighted child (played by the astonishing Haley Joel
Osment) and a devoted psychologist (Bruce Willis). In the first scene, Willis
and Olivia Williams (as his wife) admire the beautiful frame around an award
he received for helping troubled kids. In retrospect, it's an obvious pun,
since the frame of the story provides the main narrative kick. To squeeze a
dramatic and visual jigsaw puzzle within this frame, the writer-director, M.
Night Shyamalan, plots and stages the action so oddly that he ends up putting
off one segment of the audience and planting suspicions in another. Without
giving anything away, all I can say is that long before the halfway mark, I
turned to a friend and asked why Willis wasn't talking to anyone except the boy.

My guess is that people who get roped into "The Sixth Sense" stay
because of the freaky potency of young Osment's performance. His eloquent
alienation, and the palpable yearning for fatherly guidance that connects him
to Willis, can make even the most badly telegraphed action emotionally engulfing.

Osment is a find. His trembling figure works for the movie like an
unlucky charm. Whenever he's center screen, he focuses your sympathy and
enlarges your awareness of a child's awesome sense of fate. Although Osment
has been praised for giving the boy's visions their persuasive oomph, he
seems to understand his character's agony as an extension of any sensitive
child's trials. His actions are simultaneously natural and italicized, starting when he puts
on his absent dad's eyeglasses and for a moment looks as bug-eyed as Jiminy Cricket.
What makes his oblong face magnetic
isn't its downturned cast, but the way his intelligence and feelings funnel
down from his eyes to his mouth. When he tells a teacher not to look at him,
he's like any shy child, only more so; he's sure that he's being pigeonholed
and knows he can't fully explain himself.

But if Osment's performance is a genuine act of imagination, it's
not enough to make me recommend the movie. The director fits him all too
snugly into a shallow, pessimistic portrayal of marriage and family life.
Early on we discover that Osment's dad has left his mom (the blessedly robust
Toni Collette) for a woman in Pittsburgh (I hope stigmata
aren't catching). One of Osment's typical visions is of a woman slashing her own wrists as her only way of getting back at an abusive husband. A key sequence rests on another mother poisoning her daughter.

When Osment finally gets around to telling his mother that he consorts with ghosts, he tells her that his
grandmother, contrary to what mom always thought, had indeed seen her dance at a long-ago recital
and said she performed "like an angel" --
presumably the highest compliment a ghost can pay. In this film, a mother and child reunion is only a spectral
motion away. And boy, do these people need that sort of communion. In the
freighted opening scene, Williams pointedly tells Willis that he deserves a professional award because he's placed the rest of his life -- including her -- second to his
work. No wonder his prize patient can find sanctuary only in church.

How does any of this make "The Sixth Sense" a "psychological horror
movie," as it's usually described? "The Sixth Sense" would best be called
mood moviemaking -- bad-mood moviemaking. If it's about anything, it's not about psychology, but belief.

Together, these movies drove me back to the 1949
British gem "The Rocking Horse Winner," a bona fide psychological horror film
based on the D.H. Lawrence story about a gifted child who tries to correct
the sins of his elders. Although it's set in the lower reaches of the
privileged class, not in the lower-middle-class of "Sixth Sense" or "Stir of
Echoes," it has many of the same tensions: The young antihero becomes
obsessed with horse racing because of his unhappily married mom and dad's
financial woes. He feels that their house itself is telling him that they
need more money, and he acquires a knack for picking winners when he rides
his rocking horse at fever pitch. His obsession grows dire -- and the visage
of the rocking horse menacing.

But the tale gets its power from the boy's tragic relationships. An amused, cynical uncle and the family's affable
driver/gardener don't see that the boy is nearing the abyss; his grasping
mother sees it too late. Is the boy simply on an unfathomable betting streak? Or is the rocking horse a sort of man-made demon? In "The Rocking Horse
Winner," unlike would-be psychological horror films, the ambiguity is
unresolved, the terror comes from worldly drives and religion is no panacea. What this boy gets for Christmas is the rocking horse that kills him.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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Directors Steven Spielberg