The next time someone talks about The Sixth Sense having an original twist ending, sit them down and force them to watch Carnival of Souls (1962).
Spoiler warning. If you haven’t seen either of these films, or generally have no idea what I’m talking about, stop reading now. Go away. Come back next week. You don’t want to be hear. God knows, I might spoil the twist in The Crying Game while I’m at it.
Your humble correspondent waits one for one more paragraph in case some unfort…nate’s eye wanders south.
Okay, here we go. Let’s be clear: the “he’s been dead the whole time!” twist is pretty old hat, dating back at least (or most famously) to Ambrose Bierce’s 1891 short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which became a Twilight Zone episode in 1962. At least, if M. Night Shyamalan was walking down a pretty thoroughly beaten path, he avoided taking the depressing route of Jacob’s Ladder, where the otherwise effective horror film is torpedoed by the twist ending which invalidates everything the audience has been watching up to that point. In The Sixth Sense, everything we have seen has actually happened; we simply interpreted the events incorrectly.
Carnival of Souls does something even more interesting. Candace Hilligoss is the lone survivor of car accident, and she finds re-adjusting to normal life very difficult. She is haunted by persistent sightings of a creepy, hollow-eyed man, and as the film unfolds, she starts to experience moments where all sound in the world stops and she can’t make herself heard or known. The climax takes place at an abandoned amusement park where our heroine is caught up in a literal danse macabre. It turns out, naturally, that Hilligoss did not survive the car wreck after all, and has been dead all the time, pursued by ghosts determined to take her to the beyond where she belongs.
Well, some of you might be thinking, how is that different from Jacob’s Ladder? The difference is that all of Hilligoss’ interactions with the living really happen. They are not hallucinations or any other sort of delusion. People see her and think she’s alive. She even gets a job. In the conclusion, the police are left baffled as to how a dead woman wound up in places she couldn’t possibly have been. This insistence on the reality of everything we have seen, and a refusal to cheat or mislead in any way (the revelation that Hilligoss is dead isn’t necessarily a surprise) is refreshing even today (perhaps even more than in 1962).
Furthermore, the film is a model of eeriness on a budget. Shot on a shoestring, the film nevertheless is wonderfully atmospheric, thanks to director Herk Hervey’s expert use of real locations and his equally smart decision not to attempt overly ambitious (and thus unconvincing) special effects.
Carnival of Souls slipped into the public domain ages ago, and there are countless DVD versions out there. One of them, though, is released by Criterion. That, I submit, is all you really need to know.
Oh, and the girl in The Crying Game is actually a guy.