Genre Index



The Others, 2001. Directed by Alejandro Amenebar. Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan, Eric Sykes, Alakina Mann, James Bently.

Synopsis: Grace, a war widow living in a mansion somewhere in the Channel Islands, is bringing up her children on her own. Her husband has not returned from the war and she fears that he is dead. One morning, a trio of new servants arrive on her door in answer to her posting for help wanted: Mrs. Mills, a governess; Mr. Tuttle, a gardener; and Lydia, a maid who happens to be mute. And not a moment too soon. The previous help ran off without so much as a goodbye. Grace guides them through the house, emphasizing the need to lock doors behind them as they move from room to room. The reason for this stems from the disorder afflicting her children, making them sensitive to sunlight. The house must be kept dark at all times. The children, Anne and Nicholas, are beginning to chafe at their confinement. Anne in particular is rebellious--and more than a little scared of her mother, who she claims has gone mad. But Anne has another problem. She tells the adults that she is seeing other people in the house: a boy named Victor, his parents, and an old woman that Anne thinks is a witch. Soon, manifestations begin to appear. Furniture is moving of its own accord in distant rooms. The piano seems to play by itself from time to time. The new servants take this all in stride. In conversations by themselves, they seem to have an ulterior motive. Grace, on the other hand, is at her wits end. She orders the house searched, top to bottom--a search that turns up no evidence of visitors, but yields an old book of photographs of the dead. Grace resolves to go into town and bring the vicar to the house to perform some kind of exorcism. She never makes it to town, though. She gets lost in the mist and meets her husband, returning from the war. Her husband, numbed by his experiences, is disaffected and unresponsive and seems inconsolably sad. Unfortunately, he has to return to the war. The morning he leaves, Grace makes some uncomfortable discoveries. That night, her children make more discoveries...

We Have Always Lived in The Castle: In some ways, this type of story always works. The late Shirley Jackson was particularly adept at isolating her characters in a microcosm and handing them their heads. The Others owes a great deal to Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and to Robert Wise's film, The Haunting, based on Jackson's novel. It owes even more to Jack Clayton's film, The Innocents, based on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. It can't hope to measure up to its considerable pedigree, but The Others does all right. It has a basic understanding of the way haunted house movies are supposed to work and does its level best to push all the right buttons. Like the Jackson novel and Clayton's film, and like a number of other novels and films in the subgenre, The Others takes the view that a "haunted house" is less a habitat for ghosts and more a habitat for haunted people. Unlike The Haunting or The Innocents, though, The Others is fairly unambiguous in its presentation of supernatural phemomena. The ghosts in this film are very real, and the film hinges on the identity of the ghosts. The Others preserves the veneer of ambiguity for most of the film, though, much to the betterment of the production.

Performances: The marquee name in the cast is the glacial Ms. Kidman as Grace. In the first scene in the movie, she wakes up screaming. Things do not get better for her throughout the rest of the movie. Grace seems to be on the verge of spinning off into screeching hysterics in almost every scene. It is fortunate that Kidman is up to the task of reigning this impulse in, because a lesser actress would have rampaged all over the movie. Even so, Kidman still delivers her lines with a barely restrained note of panic or rage in just about every scene (and some of the lines she has been given to speak are really bad). Her screen presence is tempered somewhat by the severe, impeccably cut tweed fashions she wears throughout the film, which serve the dual functions of slightly glamorizing her (as if she weren't glamorous enough as it is...) and hinting that behind her straitlaced exterior lies a barely restrained madness. The other key performances in the film belongs to Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs. Mills and Alakina Mann as Anne. Flanagan quietly steals the film from Kidman. She is the most sinister servant to come along since Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. Unlike Anderson, Flanagan plays it like a kindly old lady, a stance thrown into stark contrast when hints of diabolism show through the cracks. In some ways this is more effective than how Mrs. Danvers was portrayed. Alakina Mann gives an excellent performance as Anne, serving some of the same duties in the film that Martin Stephens served as Miles in The Innocents--but lacking the shocking subtextual role that underlined Stephens's performance (and, for that matter, the skill of Stephens's performance--but there's no shame in that, since Stephens's performance is one of the very best performances by a child actor). The rest of the cast is set dressing.

Atmosphere: Ghost stories, when they are serious, live and die by the atmosphere they generate. Here, The Others succeeds marvellously. The house isn't the baroque monstrosity from Wise's The Haunting (or the CGI funhouse from the botched remake). It's fairly ordinary on the surface. Dreary, even. It DOES seem to be larger on the inside than it is on the outside, although I'm not sure this means anything. The fogs that cling to the countryside throughout the movie lend the settings a dreamy existentialism. Some of the props help generate creeps, too, particularly Anne's marionette and the book of photographs that Grace finds in the store room. In addition, I applaud the fact that The Others makes no use whatsoever of CGI special effects. None. Nada. Zip. Like The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, The Others makes extensive use of the Val Lewton technique of keeping everything off stage and letting the audience fill in the horror by themselves. It doesn't show the audience much, but insinuates and suggests worse things than it could possibly show. The main gripe I have with the presentation isn't really a fault of the film so much as it is a fault of the state of the art of motion pictures. The film is simply too loud. The sound of slamming doors and of Ms. Kidman's dialogue is too loud for the tone of the movie. This is all the fault of dolby stereo, which is cranked WAAAY up in most film auditoriums. This is a film that could benefit from turning the sound down a touch.

Subtext: A good friend of mine took me to task recently for "giving away the ending" to movies in my reviews. In deferrence to her, I'll refrain from spoiling The Others even though it makes it difficult to discuss the meaning of the film. Suffice it to say that, like The Sixth Sense and Memento and The Usual Suspects, The Others is a puzzle movie. The solution to the puzzle, I think, is fairly transparent, but I'll leave that to the individual reader. The MEANING of the puzzle is fairly slight. The film delivers a pretty good jolt after spending an hour and a half on misdirection, but like many puzzle movies, the process is more satisfying than the solution. As a HORROR movie, The Others provides a few moments of frission, but fails utterly in the task of really scaring the audience. It doesn't really have the awful psychological dislocations present in The Haunting and The Innocents, nor does it have the profound intimations about the human condition found in many more sanguinary horror films. Its structure as a puzzle causes some of this--the audience is too busy trying to figure out what is going on to be really scared by the movie. Lacking these underpinnings, The Others remains an exercise in style. In this regard, it's pretty good. But don't expect the experience to stick with you for very long.

One final note: The Others has no bad language, no sex, no drugs, and minimal violence, and yet, in their infinite wisdom, the MPAA has seen fit to slap a PG-13 rating on this film. The evidence continues to mount that the ratings system employed by the American film industry is a terribly unfunny joke. The fact that this charade continues to dictate what the American filmgoing audience can and cannot see in films continues to be one of the great tragedies in cinema.