And this year's ''Touched by an Angel'' award for gaggingly mawkish supernatural kitsch goes to Bruce Willis's newest film, ''The Sixth Sense.'' The star, who plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a gifted child psychologist in Philadelphia, also earns the Robin Williams-manque award for ineffable, twinkling, half-smiling misty-eyed empathy with adorable tots.
But since Mr. Willis has only one basic facial expression in all his films, it isn't his icky smirk that telegraphs the doctor's extra-special sensitivity. (Mr. Willis wears exactly the same smirk when he's about to shoot someone in the face.) No, it is the movie's treacly soundtrack by James Newton Howard, the Hollywood maestro du jour for smearing on goo whenever it's time to clench back tears.
In its first hour, ''The Sixth Sense,'' which was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, half-heartedly poses as a horror film about to erupt into gore. Its opening scene finds the doctor and his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), tipsily celebrating his award from the city of Philadelphia for outstanding something-or-other. As the Crowes, flushed from imbibing a $100 bottle of wine, are about to tumble into bed, they discover an intruder in their bathroom. The uninvited guest turns out to be Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), a former child patient of the doctor's, now grown up and in full maniacal froth.
''You failed me!'' he screams and pulls out a gun and shoots the doctor in the stomach before turning the weapon on himself.
We jump ahead several months. The doctor has apparently recovered from his wounds, but his spirit is broken. Still haunted by his ''failure,'' he takes on a new patient, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a waifish 9-year-old boy who lives with his divorced mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), and whose severe psychological problems are uncannily reminiscent of the young Vincent Gray's.
This time, the doctor vows to himself, he won't fail his patient. And after much game-playing and hanging out with Cole (the doctor seems to have nothing better to do all day than follow Cole around, smirking empathetically), the boy reveals his secret. He claims he can see the dead. And every so often, the movie gives us creepy little glimpses of the corpse-strewn world as it appears through Cole's tormented vision. At first, the doctor doesn't believe the boy. But then, well, let's not take the story any further lest its colossally sentimental payoff be compromised.
Because it unfolds like a garish hybrid of ''Simon Birch'' and ''What Dreams May Come,'' with some horror-movie touches thrown in to keep us from nodding off, ''The Sixth Sense'' appears to have been concocted at exactly the moment Hollywood was betting on supernatural schmaltz. For Mr. Willis, the movie continues the unpromising track he took with ''Mercury Rising,'' in which his character goes through hell to save the life of an autistic child.
For Mr. Shyamalan, ''The Sixth Sense'' is a slight improvement over last year's ''Wide Awake.'' But that isn't saying much. That insufferably coy drama of another wee Philadelphian searching for proof of God's existence barely registered at the box office. The Willis name should insure that ''The Sixth Sense'' stays around a little bit longer. ´