Face-Off: The Sixth Sense vs. Signs

Nice to see you again, fans of the cinema! This is the Face-Off, where two movies enter and both movies leave, but one leaves in a slightly better light. Yes, here we take two competitors and compare their key elements and see who comes out the champion. It's a fierce competition that results in blood, tears, and online arguments, but the more brutal the battle, the sweeter the victory.

So the big movie this weekend was the latest from auteur M. Night Shyamalan, which is a sentence that would've been harder to write only a few years ago. The director is back in major hit territory with the new movie GLASS, the finale in his Eastrail 177 trilogy after UNBREAKABLE and SPLIT, a trilogy that also seemed impossible to think about only a few years ago. In honor of the new movie we're going to take a look back at two of the filmmakers more lauded, successful works made during a time when he was one of the top directors around, and not someone we for whom success seemed to come at the toss of a coin: It's THE SIXTH SENSE vs. SIGNS.

The first was the director's ticket to fame and notoriety that has taken him a long way, earning him two Oscar nominations and, until 2017's IT, ultimate bragging rights as having the biggest horror movie ever to his name. It's an iconic thriller with an iconic twist, a twist that if not known off the top of your head is proof you're an alien and not of this world. Speaking of aliens, next is SIGNS, Shyamalan's personal examination of faith and family, all bundled up with a sci-fi setting. A hit near SIXTH SENSE levels in terms of money, this movie is yet another rousing success under Shyamalan's belt, and the last one to come out before everything seemed to start rolling downhill towards ladies in water and airbending tweens. 

Which is the best of Shyamalan? Scroll on down to see the conclusion of this intense, world-shaking face-off. 

The Ensemble

Bruce Willis as Malcolm Crowe
Haley Joel Osment as Cole Sear
Toni Collette as Lynn Sear
Olivia Williams as Anna Crowe
Glenn Fitzgerald as Sean
Donnie Wahlberg as Vincent Grey
Mischa Barton as Kyra Collins
Trevor Morgan as Tommy Tammisimo

Mel Gibson as Graham Hess
Joaquin Phoenix as Merrill Hess
Rory Culkin as Morgan Hess
Abigail Breslin as Bo Hess
Cherry Jones as Officer Caroline Paski
with Patricia Kalember as Colleen Hess
and M. Night Shyamalan as Ray Reddy


Shyamalan didn't have a lot of notable work under his belt prior to SENSE, unless you count the Rosie O'Donnell comedy WIDE AWAKE an underrated gem of cinema. Clearly, that one and his first film, PRAYING WITH ANGER, were simple warm-ups, because with SENSE he got the creative control to make the movie he damn well wanted, and the result is what might still to this day be the best showcase of his sensibilities. No, he doesn't demonstrate the same visceral boldness as he did later with UNBREAKABLE (longer takes, more intricate framing), but what makes up his best qualities are on their best display here, namely his ability to tell a human, emotional stories against the backdrop of a supernatural setting. From the start he executes a palm-sweating sense of tension and suspense, as seen during the scene with Vincent Grey, maintaining a consistent, slow-build approach to the rest of the horror throughout. He gets a lot of terror out of doing quite little, letting the atmosphere doing the heavy lifting before going in strong with some sort of visual punch (ghost people). But what I admire most here is his balance of terror and palpable emotion. One minute Shyamalan is laying down the chills and next, he's intimately filming dramatic moments, the best between Cole and his mom. He may not be playing with more expensive shots or experimenting with grander themes, but this is the director at his most passionate and focused, deftly blending old-school emotion and tense thrills.

After playing around the comic book genre with UNBREAKABLE, Shyamalan went back to the paranormal/supernatural arena with SIGNS - a movie about faith and miracles wrapped in a sci-fi story. What makes this a great Shyamalan movie -- the last great one some would say -- is that while the natural inclination of big-budget sci-fi movies is to dig into the more chaotic sci-fi elements (destruction, alien battles, mashed potato forts, etc.), he focuses it all on the family and lets the mystery and scary stuff play off-screen. The result is a constant sense of dread that almost lives up to the execution of atmosphere in SENSE, always leaving a gap of information that keeps audiences in the dark. Until the end, we never see the aliens up close, and everything relating to them is shown through a skewed lens, like a TV report, a window or through the corn. This allows him to focus on the characters and their narrative, namely Gibson's Graham, a man struggling to find hope as the apocalypse seemingly nears. The precision of direction is there -- as it is with SENSE and UNBREAKABLE -- as is his emotional investment, but where I think he succeeds more with SENSE his that he was able to effectively juggle more elements, including the character arcs, tension and emotional payoffs. But truly, few directors have such an incredible one-two-three punch as Shyamalan does with SENSE, UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS.


Bought right on the spot by then-president of production at Disney, David Vogel, Shyamalan's script for SENSE is an air-tight masterwork. A story about how we communicate with one another -- both in this life and the next -- the script for SENSE takes a paranormal approach to tell a very relatable and profound story. The three main characters (Malcolm, Cole, Lynn) are written so clearly, with defined struggles and strong personalities. The angle I love most is the dynamic between Cole and his mom Lynn, with Shyamalan capturing the tragedy of a mother and son failing to understand and communicate with each other. Their final scene together in the car is a masterclass of direction and writing, with no line wasted as Cole opens up about his "extra sense." But what is most genius about the script is that for most of the movie it makes you think you're watching a typical ghost story, one where dead souls haunt the living, only to learn, in perhaps the most iconic movie twist ever, that we have actually been living IN  a ghost story the whole time. Shyamalan's script not only keeps the logic sound and shocking for first-time watchers but makes noticing small details and lines of dialogue more thrilling upon repeat viewings. It's a classic twist-and-turn style story told expertly, ending with heart-breaking emotion and utter surprise. Now that's a bedtime story!

With SIGNS Shyamalan didn't write as entertaining and rewarding a tale as he did with SENSE, but where he somewhat makes up for it is telling his most personal story of the lot, but still wrapping it in the supernatural genre he works best in. A story about a nigh-broken man dealing with his lack of faith and and trying to interpret the -- ahem -- signs around him as the alien invasion lies on the doorstep of his farmhouse. Where I enjoy this script is in the depiction of the family itself, with each member having their own defined personalities and quirks -- all of which often clash. It's probably his funniest movie, thanks to some adorable lines for Bo and great deadpan work from Phoenix and Gibson. This is perhaps a saving grace as my only real problem with the writing is that leaves too much room for muted conversation that can slow things down between the scares. The family dynamic is written in a way that keeps things moving along, and the actual direction on screen creates a sense of dread, also keeping things engaging. But with SIGNS Shyamalan wrote a story about finding your faith -- which on that note it's a well-written, detailed story that can be emotionally rewarding -- even if it means the story itself relies on simple plot points to get the viewer to that point. The story isn't so challenging as it life-affirming, which is fine, but in being so there's not a lot of places for it to go, whereas with SENSE the foundation is built on mystery, making for a more layered story.

Best Bits & Lines


Vincent Grey

Cole And Malcolm In The Church

Living Room

Stuttering Stanley

Ghost in the Dungeon

I See Dead People

Woman In The Kitchen

Executed Spirits

Mother's Breakdown

Gun Boy Spirit

Girl In The Tent

The Truth Revealed

Cole's Big Moment

Cole Tells His Secret

The Big Twist




Cole: "I see dead people."


Cole: "She wanted me to tell you she saw you dance. She said, when you were little, you and her had a fight, right before your dance recital. You thought she didn't come see you dance. She did. She hid in the back so you wouldn't see. She said you were like an angel. She said you came to the place where they buried her. Asked her a question? She said the answer is... "Every day." What did you ask?"
Lynn: "Do... Do I make her proud?


Malcolm: "I think I can go now. Just needed to do a couple of things. I needed to help someone; I think I did. And I needed to tell you something: You were never second, ever. I love you. You sleep now. Everything will be different in the morning."


Cole: "Stuttering Stanley! Stuttering Stanley!"


Vincent: "Do you know why you're afraid when you're alone? I do. I do."


Cole: "Instead of something I want, can it be something I don't want?"
Malcolm: "Okay..."
Cole: "I don't wanna be scared anymore."


Malcolm: "I don't know what you're thinking now"
Cole: "I was thinking... you're nice, but you can't help me."


Malcolm: "I think I'm okay really. I think it just went in and out. I... It doesn't even hurt anymore."


Malcolm: "I do remember you. Quiet, very smart, compassionate. Unusually compassionate."
Vincent: "You forgot cursed."


Malcolm: "Hey... you are not a freak. Okay? Don't you believe anybody that tries to convince you of that. That's bullshit! You don't have to go through your life believing that. Okay?"
Cole: "...You said the "s" word."


Crop Circles

Sick Dog

Creature on the Roof

Going Crazy Around the House

Recruitment Center/Merrill's Record

Baby Monitor

Creature in the Crops

The 14 Lights

Gibson and Phoenix Heart to Heart

Out of the Bushes

Trapped in the Pantry

Family Dinner

They're Here

Coal Shute

Last Words

Merrill v. Alien




Bo: "There's a monster outside my room, can I have a glass of water?"




Graham: "Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?"




Graham: "Swing away Merrill. Merrill... swing away."




Merrill: "Move children! Vámanos!"




Graham: "Don't do this to me again. Not again. I hate you. I hate you!"



Graham: "I cursed."

Merrill: "I heard."



Merrill: "Morgan, this crop stuff is just about a bunch of nerds who never had a girlfriend their whole lives. They're like thirty now. They make up secret codes and analyze Greek mythology and make secret societies where other guys who never had girlfriends can join in. They do stupid crap like this to feel special. It's a scam. Nerds were doin' it twenty five years ago and new nerds are doing it again."




Bo: "It has dust in it."
Graham: "And this one?"
Bo: "A hair."
Graham: "And this one?"
Bo: "Morgan took a sip and it's got his amoebas in it."


Bo: "Does she ever answer back?"
Graham: "No."
Bo: "She never answers me either."


Graham: "That's why he had asthma. It can't be luck. His lungs were closed. His lungs were closed. No poison got in. No poison got in. His lungs were closed. His lungs were closed."




Thrills & Chills

Yes, the ending of SIXTH SENSE has such a strong place in pop culture that newborns probably know how it goes. The same thing goes for the "I see dead people" bit. But does that diminish the impact of the scares or tension? The key to the movie's timeliness is that that answer is a hard and fast "No." Shyamalan is a master of creating tension  (sometimes), letting the mystery linger in the air to add a thick layer of suspense. Even though I know how it plays out the movie is designed in such a way that makes me go, "What the hell is going on with this kid?" and "What the hell is he seeing??" This is perhaps because we don't ever see the ghosts until Cole tells Malcolm what he sees. Until then it's all speculative. Once that happens Shyamalan goes all in, throwing out imposing ghosts one right after the other for a big payoff. Now that we're in Cole's world we see just how terrifying his life is, and the dread takes on a whole new level. I love revisiting Shyamalan's horror work here, and really, it might be too perfect for him to ever recreate ever again.

SIGNS may not have the always creepy presence of ghosts, but Shyamalan makes equally excellent use of the alien phenomena here. Again, while other movies may rely on the CGI work of aliens to create some gnarly, freaky characters, Shyamalan goes back to a mystery-of-the-unknown angle. We don't see much of the aliens, but just enough to feel their presence and get a sense of their size. Keeping so much in the dark makes it all the more unsettling when they are shown, much like with the ghosts in SENSE. But Shyamalan goes for the bigger thrills here, hitting the scare notes harder (alien on the barn, alien in the corn, the finale), and because there is this natural curiosity about the nature of alien life it's as gripping as its scary.

Musical Mastery

James Newton Howard's score for SIXTH SENSE is an excellent, eerie accent piece for the suspenseful atmosphere -- always lingering beneath the surface. There are plenty of compositions that call to mind the ethereal qualities of a Danny Elfman piece, teasing something wondrous and not of this world. Where Howard puts a big stamp on things is when the horror and ghost stuff really kicks in, creating some really unsettling, drawn-out sounds that send a chill up the spine. One track titled "Suicide Ghost" is particularly nerve-wracking and makes me shudder just recalling it now. But then there are some big, emotional compositions too, the cream of the crop being the final piece to accompany the twist, which is a long, evolving track that glides from shocking to heartfelt. Most of the score is great but many of the tracks blend together, making me long for the moments when it embraces the bigger moments and stays with you long after the movie (and the soundtrack itself, on an independent listen) is over.

Honestly, I may get some push back here from the SENSE diehards, but I f**king love Howard's score for SIGNS. It's just goddamn fun to listen to while still being ominous and freaky. The whole thing calls to mind a sci-fi serial from back in the day, and could even work as a complimentary piece to John Williams' work on WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). The score is put to excellent use in the opening credits, starting with that slow build and then getting into the big, operatic sounds as the names fly onto the screen. Then there's the typical, low sound during the more suspenseful moments, with plenty of tracks moving effortlessly into fast-paced relentless terror themes. The music is big and playful in an otherwise quiet movie, giving it some energy and gravitas.


Come on. It's the SIXTH f**king SENSE. Until 2017's IT this was the biggest horror movie ever both at the domestic box office and abroad, AND it's no doubt a movie that has worked its way into pop culture now and until the end of days. You got iconic scenes (the finale) and oft-quoted lines ("I see dead people") and a memorable performance from Haley Joel Osment. Simply put, it's one of the best and most loved in its class of the last 30 years, on top of being the best work from the director, which he followed with two other superb works. This movie has earned its legacy.

SIGNS is a terrific effort by a filmmaker who doesn't make movies the way he used to anymore, which is why I believe it has a special place in his canon. His most personal movie, and one that showcases some of the best of his skill set, it was his last massive hit before SPLIT brought him back to (seemingly) full glory. As nostalgic as that may sound, perhaps a reason why people keep going back to it is that it really is just a great movie. It's got tension, great performances, some memorable moments and lines. It's one that made a lot of money and not by accident. People flocked to see it then and still watch it today, giving it a solid place as one of the more memorable thrillers of the 21st century.

Awards, Praise & Money



Best Picture (Nominated)

Best Director: M. Night Shyamalan (Nominated)

Best Original Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan (Nominated)

Best Supporting Actor: Haley Joel Osment (Nominated)

Best Supporting Actress: Toni Collette (Nominated)

Best Editing (Nominated)

Golden Globes:

Best Supporting Actor: Haley Joel Osment (Nominated)

Best Original Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan (Nominated)

**Another 32 Wins & 48 Nominations per IMDb**



Rotten Tomatoes: 85% (90% Audience Score)

Metacritic: 64 (8.9 Audience)

IMDb: 8.1 (Top Rated Movie #162)



$293 million ($672 million globally)


Nothing Fancy

**3 Wins & 34 Nominations per IMDb**



Rotten Tomatoes: 73% (67% Audience Score)

Metacritic: 59 (7.4 Audience)

IMDb: 6.7



$227 million ($408 million globally)

The Sixth Sense

Going into this battle I thought it would be a closer fight. I feel like I've seen SIGNS more in my life, and though I always had a fondness for SIXTH SENSE I didn't remember it being as scary as I had once thought. But now getting to explore them again after what seems like a bit of time has passed I have to say that, at risk of being called out for settling on an "easy pick," THE SIXTH SENSE is truly Shyamalan's masterpiece. SIGNS is very good as well, exploring themes very personal to the director while still delivering on the thrills. The music is great and so is the cast, so I really have no reason to think I won't be revisiting this sci-fi thriller with a soul for years to come. But SIXTH SENSE is too perfect in so many more ways. Shyamalan's direction and script are more methodical and engaging; the performances are incredible and; there are countless, perfectly executed moments and lines that have kept it in the public mind for decades. This is horror movie filmmaking at some of its finest, elevated with a tremendous level of heart. Are rewatching this movie for the first time in a few years I found so much more to appreciate on a cinematic and emotional level, and to reiterate a past point, it's easy to see why this movie has the legacy it does.  



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