Paul W.S. Anderson had, in the late 1990s, been making a name for himself in Hollywood following his debut film Shopping (1994) but his career was about to hit a considerable bump in the road. Computer game adaptation Mortal Kombat (1995) had been a huge hit but the British/American co-production Event Horizon (1997) failed to match that film’s success. The big budget Soldier (1998) was a full-on financial disaster and Anderson’s standing in Tinsel Town took a serious hit. He took a year off to regroup and lick his wounds before returning to the UK for this pilot to a proposed series that never got made, leaving behind this patchy but intriguing pilot.
American architect Michael Lewis (Andrew McCarthy) and his business partner Jake (Kevin Tighe) leave New York for London where Lewis has been hired to oversee the restoration of the Arcadia hotel (“played” by the then dilapidated Midland Grand Hotel in central London, since renovated and re-opened as the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel). The city is being haunted by a serial killer who has already claimed multiple victims, mostly children and Lewis has started experiencing strange visions of a young girl. One night he accidentally runs over and kills an old woman, Margaret Smith (Honor Blackman) who returns as a ghost to tell him that he has “the sight”, the ability to communicate with the restless spirits of the recently deceased and help them cross over into the afterlife. The little girl, Alice (Michaela Dicker, who would return as the embodiment of the Red Queen computer in Anderson’s subsequent Resident Evil (2002)) was a victim of the killer and Lewis teams up with cop Detective Pryce (Amanda Redman) to track him down as more and more ghosts make themselves known to him.
The Sight undoubtedly owes something to M. Night Shyamalan’s huge box office hit The Sixth Sense (1999) and Anderson doesn’t shy away from showing off his many influences. As well as Shyamalan’s film, The Sight marked the beginning of Anderson’s obsession with Alice in Wonderland – apart from Alice herself, there’s a lawyer named Charles Dodgson (Alexander Armstrong) whose office is based in Liddel Court; a restaurant menu offers Mock Turtle Soup and Lobster Quadrille (a double in-joke perhaps – one of Blackman’s The Avengers episodes was titled Lobster Quadrille); and visual references to a red queen and her partially eaten tarts. There are also hints here and there of Mario Bava, particularly Operazione paura/Kill Baby Kill (1966) which also featured a ghostly little girl and there’s a shot that recalls the moment when Karswell leaves the British Library reading room in Night of the Demon (1958).
With those kind of influences you might expect The Sight to look stylish and it certainly does, thanks in no small part to director of photography David Johnson’s excellent photography. His lighting of the run-down interiors of the hotel is particularly striking and a shimmering effect used to suggest Lewis’ visions – done by shooting into a vibrating mirror – is memorably striking. Less impressive are the opening scenes set in New York where Anderson and Johnson use tight close-ups and jittery, hand-held camerawork in an effort to disguise the fact – none too convincingly – that they never actually went anywhere near the Big Apple.
The performances are mostly strong, the plot is intriguing and twists and turns satisfyingly in the final act and overall The Sight isn’t anywhere near as awful as it’s often painted to be. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination but it’s a more restrained and thoughtful work than the brain-dead action films that Anderson was about to make his own. There are some nicely disturbing moments – as when Lewis meets some kids in a playground, not realising immediately that they’re all dead or the moment when a brief fading of lights on a London Underground train reveals that he’s surrounded by ghosts – though the circular stairway to Heaven is tad on the cheesy side.
A couple of literally last minute twists involving a cameo from an uncredited Jason Isaacs and Lewis’ dream of a ruined, abandoned New York City (including a horribly prophetic shot of the shattered World Trade Centre towers, a year before the 9/11 attacks) sets us up for the series that never happened. Anderson – who used the W.S. initials here for the first time in an effort to differentiate himself from Paul Thomas Anderson, who had registered himself with the Writers Guild of America s Paul Anderson – went on to make the inexplicably popular Resident Evil series and remade Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975) as Death Race in 2008, a pet project he’d been trying to put together since the aftermath of Soldier. The Sight, a co-production between the UK’s Sky and the American Fox Entertainment, was first broadcast in the UK on 10 September 2000 and then quietly forgotten, rarely shown again and now barely a footnote in Anderson’s increasingly awful filmography. Which is a shame. It’s not the greatest ghost story ever made but it had potential and the final images suggest that the subsequent series was about to take off in more interesting directions.