(2001) Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar; Starring: Nicole Kidman, Alakina Mann, James Bentley, Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan;
Available on Blu-Ray and DVD
Rating: **** ½
“There are things your mother doesn't want to hear. She only believes in what she was taught. But don't worry. Sooner or later... she'll see them. And everything will be different.” – Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan)
Horror Month officially starts with one of my favorites, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. Amenábar’s old-fashioned ghost tale is one of the best in recent memory, and he achieves it without flashy special effects or cheap scares. The mounting suspense can be likened to a tightly wound clock spring that slowly unravels. Little by little, the secrets locked inside are released, although we might not like what we find.
The Others is anchored by Nicole Kidman’s tremendous performance as family matriarch Grace Stewart. She’s lives alone with her two children on a sprawling estate in the British Isles, awaiting her husband’s return from the war. Amidst uncertainty, she endeavors to maintain a sense of order through her regimented lifestyle and strict adherence to biblical teachings, which she foists upon her children. Adding to the isolation is her need to keep the house as dark and quiet as possible, in an effort to control her chronic migraines and her children’s exposure to light. Keeping all the windows covered and the children shrouded in darkness is a metaphor for her efforts to shut out anything that contradicts her limited world view. In spite of the odd occurrences in her household (strange voices, slamming doors, etc…), she persists in clinging to her rigid belief system. While she refuses to entertain alternative explanations, it’s evident from the early scenes that she’s barely holding everything together. To think otherwise would be to compromise the foundation of her entire belief system. Kidman handles her character with depth and a nuanced approach, as Grace gradually migrates from a stance of knowing to not knowing. It’s a tribute to Kidman’s portrayal that her character rises above being simply a tyrannical control freak. Even when her worst traits are revealed, and she remains sympathetic.
Alakina Mann and James Bentley play siblings Anne and Nicholas Stewart. Both suffer from a rare photosensitive condition (xeroderma pigmentosum), which necessitates their isolation from the outside world, since exposure to sunlight is fatal. Despite their mother’s assertions to the contrary, the children are aware something else lurks in the darkness with them. Only Anne, along with the head housekeeper (Fionnula Flanagan), is willing to confront the reality of the family’s situation, or address what no one else dares to speak. Anne is locked in a constant battle with Grace, frustrated by her mother’s dismissal of her perceptions as nothing more than fantasy.
Writer, director and score composer, Amenábar wears all hats effectively, keeping a pervasive sense of dread, while leading up to devastating conclusion. Similar to The Haunting and The Innocents, he relies on shadows and suggestion to spin his tale, rather than the usual assault on our senses that’s become the solution of lazy filmmakers. Light and darkness become characters in their own right. In an interview, Amenábar commented that he was “playing with light as though it’s water.” The Others earns many of its chills not by making us jump, but through the quiet buildup of tension, as in one effective scene, when Grace discovers an old black book filled with death portraits from the late 1800s. While it’s not essential to have a surround system to enjoy this film, the aggressive use of surround channels in a few key scenes (one concession to modern filmmaking) is a nice little touch that sets the viewer further on edge.
The Others rewards on subsequent viewings, with clues that are laid out from the beginning scenes that all is not quite as it seems. The climax, which I wouldn’t dare give away, is a reverse of the usual conceit found in most ghost films. It all leads up to a powerful and unsettling dénouement, arriving at an uneasy closure. Neither the audience members, nor the characters, are off the hook. The Others is a throwback to older ghost films, where simplicity is imperative. Amenábar understands one of the keys to creating an effective ghost tale – what you don’t see is far more frightening than what you see. A dozen years after its release, The Others hasn’t lost its power to thrill. It’s the best of its kind in a couple decades, and qualifies as a modern classic.