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Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others came along at the perfect time. The spooky horror film entered the marketplace at a time when teenybopper slasher flicks and supposedly “horror” films that relied on CGI ghosts were gobbling up money and turning the minds of hapless teenagers into jelly. A movie like The Others would have fitted in perfectly had it been released in the ’50s or ’60s, thus making it something of a “throwback film” in 2001. As written and filmed by Amenabar, The Others stresses mood and atmosphere over cheap scares.
The film stars Nicole Kidman as Grace, an Englishwoman living with her two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), both of whom suffers from a rare disease that makes them allergic to sunlight. The family lives in an old spooky house somewhere in the English countryside, a place constantly besieged by fog. The children, we are told, can die if exposed to the sunlight for too long, and because of this rare illness, the house is always kept darken with long drapes over windows and there can never be two doors opened at once lest they risk accidental exposure to sunlight.
When we first see Grace and her family, they are looking for new domestic help. We learn that their last help has mysteriously quit and disappeared. Or at least that’s what we’re told. Enter Mrs. Mills and Mr. Tuttle, two elderly domestics who arrives at Grace’s door one day with a mute girl to offer their services. Grace is surprised to see them, but realizing that she needs help to care for her children and the house, offers the trio employment. And that’s when things start to go wrong.
The Others is a spooky, moody film, oozing with atmosphere and possible chills. I say “possible” because almost nothing is shown onscreen and almost everything, from the chills to the appearance of ghosts to ghostly events, are seen slightly out of frame or completely out of frame. We hear, feel, and sense more than we actually see anything happen. The movie relies on the imagination of the audience as well as its characters to scare us. There are scenes that make the hair on one’s neck stand up, and not once does a knife-wielding maniac in a hockey mask show up, and there are no corpses or bloody body to be seen.
The credit goes to writer/director Amenabar, who creates a whole world within Grace’s home, complete with its own rhythms. Much of the movie takes place within the many rooms, dens, kitchen, and attic rooms of the house. Stairs and doors creak, footsteps are heard from the floors above and below, and chairs and curtains are moved unexpectedly, all of it taking place slightly or completely out of frame.
Amenabar is not looking for cheap scares here. He doesn’t need it, and the movie comes across as sophisticated and even more unnerving because of the decision. The scares, when they do come, work not because we’re hit over the head with them, but because as an active participant and not just mindless viewers, Amenabar dips into our imagination and uses our fears to scare us. It works wonders and The Others is a revelation because of it.
As Grace, Nicole Kidman gives a tremendous performance. Her Grace is at once commanding of her servants and her children and completely vulnerable and frightened of her own life, the house, and of her anguish about her missing husband, Charles. Grace is a dominating mother who demands total loyalty from her children and servants, but we quickly realize that the domineering demeanor is just a facade, as the real Grace is hidden away, her fears and doubts safe from prying eyes.
As Grace’s children, Bentley and Mann are downright creepy, especially Mann’s Anne, who claims to see ghosts walking around the house, much to Grace’s disapproval and her brother’s fright. The presence — or is that the imagination? — of one of Anne’s “ghosts” makes up much of the movie’s intensely frightening moments.
The Others proves that with a lot of imagination and a skillful directing hand, a ghost story is more effective when it doesn’t bankrupt the CGI budget. Machete wielding maniacs need not apply.
Alejandro Amenabar (director) / Alejandro Amenabar (screenplay)
CAST: Nicole Kidman …. Grace
Fionnula Flanagan …. Mrs. Bertha Mills
Alakina Mann …. Anne
James Bentley …. Nicholas