Danish Director Martin Barnewitz Enters "Room 205"

Perhaps the era of the sleeper hit horror movie is over in the U.S. Once upon a time, movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE could come out of nowhere; foreign films like BLACK SUNDAY and SUSPRIA could pack American audiences into drive-ins and grind houses, while their more upscale brethren like ONIBABA and KWAIDAN could find audiences in the art theatres. Today, a low-budget, foreign-language horror film – no matter how good – is lucky to get a DVD release in the U.S. With little hope of selling tickets stateside, the film becomes not an end in itself but a means to an end, a calling card that can, hopefully, lead to a more lucrative gig.

This is more or less what happened with ROOM 205 (a.k.a. Kollegiet [“The College”]), an effective supernatural thriller from Denmark that impressed audiences at last year’s Screamfest Film Festival in Hollywood. Ghost House Underground, a joint venture between Ghost House Pictures (known for J-Horror remakes like THE GRUDGE) and Grindstone Entertainment Group (one of the country’s bigger direct-to-video companies), picked up the U.S. rights, including a potential American remake; by passing theatres, the film will come out on DVD later this year. Meanwhile, director Martin Barnewitz has landed a deal with Ghost House Pictures to direct THE MESSENGERS 2, a direct-to-video sequel to the 2007 film directed by the Pang Brothers (THE EYE).

ROOM 205 follows Katrine (Neel Ronholt), a young woman from a small town who moves into a dormitory when she goes to a University in the big city. She tries to fit in with her new neighbors, but her situation quickly sours into alienation. Complications take the form of a ghost, which manifests in a bathroom mirror and seems to act on Katrine’s behalf, taking revenge against those who have wronged her. Although the film ultimately comes down squarely in favor of a supernatural explanation, much of it plays like a modern homage to Roman Polanski thrillers like REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and THE TENANT, which focused on characters who were paranoid, isolated, and/or alienated from their neighbors.
Cinefantastique Online sat down for a chat with Barnewitz when he was in the U.S. for Screamfest, before the deals for releasing ROOM 205 and directing MESSENGERS 2 had been finalized.

Director Martin Barnewitz

STEVE BIODROWSKI: How did you conceive the idea for this film and develop the screenplay with writer Jannik Tai Mosholt?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: I had an ex-girlfriend who lived in a dormitory, also some friends who lived in dormitories in Copenhagen. I sensed it was a very good place if you come from the countryside and don’t know any people in the big city, because you share a kitchen and you meet a lot of people. But some people for different reasons fall out of the community; they become outsiders because they’re shy or they do something or have mental problems, maybe. Then it’s almost the worst place to be alone, because you’re surrounded by so many people it’s even worse.

I wanted to explore that topic, and I made a short film. It was more like a psychological horror film, about a girl who moved there and got mixed up with the wrong people and kind of lost it. I just thought it was a good setting, so I wanted to explore that.

What we set out to do was make a film for the target group of 15- to 25- years-old. Make it as scary as possible. And I thought a haunt – some of the most scary films I remember were THE EXORCIST and Japanese films like JU-ON and RINGU, so I thought, ‘How can we combine that?’ I met up with a writer. When you work with people it gets to another place, so he put his stuff in. It ended up much more out in the open, in your face.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: You mention JU-ON and RINGU. One explanation for the success of the J-Horror films is that they come from a culture that has a tradition of ghost stories and folklore. Whether or not people actually believe it, it’s something they grew up with and understand. Is there any equivalent in Denmark?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: In Denmark, there is no tradition. We don’t have public shrines. We have churches, but we are maybe even less religious than in America. We are Protestants, and very few people go to church, only newborn Christians and old people. So the state religion isn’t that big in the public [realm]. But people believe in spirits and supernatural stuff, New Age Stuff. We had a TV series called “The Power of the Demons,” and it was really popular. It was like a documentary: you followed people through these haunted houses. So, we’re very Western rational people, and at the same time we have this urge toward the unknown. But I would say it’s equivalent with English people and Americans and all over the world.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: What about Danish horror films? There is not really much of a tradition there, either, is there?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: The ones we have are like Lars Von Trier’s THE KINGDOM, which I think is very good. And we have Ole Bornedal’s NIGHT WATCH – he did a remake here.1 But that’s more like a thriller. We don’t really have a horror tradition. Horror is difficult in Denmark. We have maybe one horror film a year. The challenge in Denmark is that we are only 5-million people, so it’s a limited audience, whereas in America it’s like 300-million, in Germany 80-million and so on. That’s the difficulty in being a small country and having a small language. People are not…some reviewers do not review it as a genre; they review it as a drama. They are not used to genres; we are not genre-oriented or experienced. They think it’s too much or too crazy.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: That must make it hard to get financing.

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: Yeah. Normally you go through the Danish Film institute, which is state funding. That’s a good thing, because if we didn’t have the state funding, we would only have very broad family comedies, because they are the only ones that really pay themselves back. But at the same time, it can be difficult, because it’s like there was only one studio in Hollywood; there’s only one place where the money is. So you have to go to the consultants, who analyze your script or your treatment, and they are doing it out of an ‘art view’ – the artistic value- and many of them do not like horror films. Therefore, it’s very difficult.

But me and my producer we didn’t go to the Film Institute. We financed it solely from a company, which is very rare in Denmark. It’s totally one company’s money, equipment, editing suites, sound stages and all that. It was made for $1-million U.S. dollars, so it’s quite cheap.

STEVE BIODROWSK: So if Denmark has so little in the way of horror, what inspired you to make a horror film?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: My main inspiration was divided into three categories: The old masters from the ‘70s and ‘80s like Roman Polanski. You’ve got Kubrick’s SHINING – a major influence. Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST. Dario Argento. All these in the ‘70s…there was something about the films that was very good. It was more about people, and you could have dark endings, too. They were more edgy and more experimental in some ways. So that was a huge influence to me.

Then we have the J-horror scene that influenced me, because suddenly you could have an everyday setting like broad daylight, a living room, the safest place in the world in the heart of your home, and it could be so scary you couldn’t believe it. They suddenly brought the supernatural into our homes and our daily life, urban settings. And they had these special kind of ghosts – I can’t remember the name, it’s “K” something – that’s part of their Shinto religion. It’s an avenging evil demon, a spirit or ghost, that comes back to haunt you and almost kill you – frighten you to death.2 That is a tradition we don’t have that much in the West; it’s more like the White Lady in the Castle: ‘Please find my body and put me to rest.’ Also, the J-horror wave – they trust the atmosphere; they trust the silence. The moment can fold out; you don’t have to pace it that much. That’s an inspiration.

I come from a Danish tradition, and we have a different way of doing things. Then I like the old Danish and Scandinavian folklore. We have these spirits that are totally menacing and non-negotiable and just want to get at your throat.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: Obviously you developed this knowing it would be a low-budget film, but still, there must have been times on set when it was difficult to achieve what was scripted.

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: First, it’s always time. The less time you have, the less set-ups you can get, so you have to compromise all the time. One of the big challenges was the ghost: how should she movie, how should she act. So it didn’t become ridiculous. But all else was the normal challenges: the logistics, lamps being broken so we need another one but we can’t get it, so how do we improvise on the fly?

It wasn’t that hard a shoot. It was of course long days. One of the difficult things was how to direct the actors. Because a scary scene is only scary when you edit it and put the music in. When you stand with an actor doing the close-up – we had the ghost almost always there so there was something to react to – but how do you tell the actor [to be scared]? A flirting scene is more simple because they know it from their own life. That was a challenge because it’s not kitchen sink drama.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: You have a ghost that manifests courtesy of a mirror, which is an intriguing idea that feels like genuine mythology. Did you make that up or find some basis in folklore?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: It was based on research. It was a choice at some point in the writing. You can have all this exposition about mirrors and how to do it. The difficult thing about this film is it is like part teenage film and part horror film. If it had been older adults maybe there would have been more room for it, but you only have ninety minutes and you have to pick your … but there is more – you could have explored that – but we made a choice not to do that. There is a lot of folklore about mirrors and what mirrors can do.

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: First, it’s always time. The less time you have, the less set-ups you can get, so you have to compromise all the time. One of the big challenges was the ghost: how should she movie, how should she act. So it didn’t become ridiculous. But all else was the normal challenges: the logistics, lamps being broken so we need another one but we can’t get it, so how do we improvise on the fly?

It wasn’t that hard a shoot. It was of course long days. One of the difficult things was how to direct the actors. Because a scary scene is only scary when you edit it and put the music in. When you stand with an actor doing the close-up – we had the ghost almost always there so there was something to react to – but how do you tell the actor [to be scared]? A flirting scene is more simple because they know it from their own life. That was a challenge because it’s not kitchen sink drama.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: You have a ghost that manifests courtesy of a mirror, which is an intriguing idea that feels like genuine mythology. Did you make that up or find some basis in folklore?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: It was based on research. It was a choice at some point in the writing. You can have all this exposition about mirrors and how to do it. The difficult thing about this film is it is like part teenage film and part horror film. If it had been older adults maybe there would have been more room for it, but you only have ninety minutes and you have to pick your … but there is more – you could have explored that – but we made a choice not to do that. There is a lot of folklore about mirrors and what mirrors can do.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: The ghost in your film materializes in a form that resembles a walking corpse rather than a phantom. Why did you take that approach?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: It was [to be scarier]. When you do films, things evolve in certain directions. I met with the effects people, and they said, ‘What about this look?’ I said, ‘Well, maybe she looks too much like a demon from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.’ In J-Horror they are just pale, with black around the lips and eyes. It would be so strange to rip it off; we had to do our own thing. The thing with her is she died, so she transformed; she got warped a little bit. That’s the reason. It’s the same actor, but she has makeup on. That was the most scary choice we could come up with.
But it was a fine line. How do you research that? I don’t see ghosts in my everyday life. A big thing is: how does a ghost move? We tried different things like making her walk backwards and stuff like that.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: Morten Jacobsen and Thomas Foldberg supplied the makeup effects, which are very good. Are there many facilities in Denmark that can supply the horror movie makeup effects?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: There is, but only one is really professional. Everyone who has money uses [them]. We said, “We only have a limited amount of money; where do we want to put it? We could save some stuff here, but we have to pay these effects guys. If the dead girl looks bad, we lose everything.’ They’re called SOTA effects. They also did [work] for THE KINGDOM.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: Fortunately, the horror effects did not seem to be spliced in from another movie. They felt integrated, not like a compromise.

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: We said this is the way we go, and we have to go into it fully.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: Rather like in the JU-ON films, when we find out the reason for the haunting, it turns out that the ghost is of a woman who was brutally murdered. Were you worried that viewers might sympathize with her and this would decrease her ability to be frightening?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: I know what you mean, but… We thought about that, but we choose to say that, when you die a very violent death, a horrible death, your ghost gets warped and goes completely crazy. So it’s just aggressive.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: At times the ghost seemed to be acting out Katrine’s wishes. All the victims are people who have offended Katrine. Sanne (Julie Olgaard) even accuses Katrine of committing the murders, and we’re supposed to think she’s mean for pointing the finger at the wrong person, you have to stop and say, “Well, there’s a good reason she might suspect Katrine.”

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: It’s a strange thing. The writer and I talked about it when writing, and we didn’t know what to… it just sort of happened. We sort of find out Katrina has a connection with the ghost because she touched the mirror with her blood. So in some ways she’s hooked up with the ghost. That was our explanation. Because the ghost is not that… it’s a difficult thing because there were other drafts where she was like – because she has been raped, her sexuality has been perversely warped, so when she jumps on people she did it in a more sexual way. So that’s also an interpretation. You could say she goes after all the ones that have [sex], but it only holds true for the guy. The thing is she has a connection with Katrina. She goes after… This is all interpretation afterwards. Maybe it could be that Katrina’s secret wishes come through. Her secret wish got them killed.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: In modern movies, we don’t necessarily expect ghosts to be malicious; like in THE SIXTH SENSE – if you can just communicate with them, you can put them to rest. But in Totem and Taboo, Freud explains why ghosts – even those of loved ones – are frightening figures in primitive cultures. He interpreted this as projection: “I hated my dead parents but I can’t admit it, so I imagine that they hate me in the afterlife.” Films like JU-ON and ROOM 205 seem to tap into that old-fashioned dread – the idea that, no matter what they were like in life, the dead hate the living.

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: The strange thing about THE EXORCIST is that we get so scared. That’s what I like about horror films. You can meet death in the theatre’s darkness. It’s a very biological genre, because your heart starts beating, your palms start sweating. For some reason you get really scared. It makes more sense if it’s a slasher film, because we all would be scared of being attacked like that. But the same thing is with the supernatural horror – we get so scared of this. I think it must be some primitive instinct that we have, deep down, some religious urge that gets tapped into in some way. I never experienced a ghost, so why am I scared?

STEVE BIODROWSKI: Despite the supernatural element, your film has the trappings of a psychological horror film by Polanski – the sense of alienation and paranoia. What is your favorite Polanski film?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: I think my favorite Polanski film is THE TENANT. It really is so radical and really to the edge. I think if as a director you can say that you have a theme you explore in your films, it is when reality slides or breaks down for a person. That’s what I love about Polanski’s films, like in ROSEMARY’S BABY and REPULSION. So Roman Polanski is a huge influence, because the acting is so good, the blocking is so good, the atmosphere, the serious tone – particularly in the three films I’m talking about here. It’s just so tight and dark and well done. He is a major influence, for everyone. How can he not be?

STEVE BIODROWSKI: To me the interesting thing about ROSEMARY’S BABY is that, if you see it when you’re fifteen, it’s not that great – too slow, not enough thrills. When you get older, you see it’s about a young woman, married and pregnant for the first time, and you realize it’s very ordinary, everyday stuff – completely realistic and believable, not like a typical horror movie at all. It’s scary not because something is jumping out at her every five minutes but because you relate to Rosemary. ROOM 205 deliberately works on a similar level: a girl away from home for the first time, on her own, feeling isolated. You relate to her as if you’re watching a drama, not a genre film.

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: It could have gone more in that direction, but we had to make a choice because we said, ‘What is the target audience?’ The short I made was much more into the dread of everyday life that ripples. ‘Am I going insane? Are they looking at me? Are they out to get me?’

STEVE BIODROWSKI: You give a lot of close-ups to Neel Ronholt as Katrine, emphasizing her innocence and vulnerability, like Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY’S BABY. Ronholt does a great job. You get the feeling that female audiences would really like this movie because they could relate to her.

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: Many Danish teenagers have grown up with her because she is the big sister in a TV series, called MY SISTER’S KIDS, a family comedy. They have seen her in three or four films, and this is like the film were she grows up and goes to college and gets laid and haunted and beat up and all that. That was interesting to do; she was interested in doing something else.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: Your film operates in an older tradition, like the Polanski films, or like THE INNOCENTS. You introduce the situation and characters and let it develop slowly before the scares emerge. The trend now is to start off with shocks and keep them coming at regular intervals.

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: Here in America, Ghost House Pictures have almost a set of rules. They want ten or fifteen jump scares, six or seven suspense scenes, and strong characters. That’s what they aim for. I could have done that. Because the most common comment I get is people think it is a bit slow in the beginning. Then again other people say they like the slow build up; it builds and builds and builds, and then explodes. We did some screenings and stuff, so it was something we were thinking about: Should we put more scares in? But at that time it was too late, because we had reshot what we could and we couldn’t go back.

It’s very interesting what horror films can do. That is the main interest for me. You sit in the darkness of a theatre. You can’t escape it. If it’s really good, it goes in your blood. If it’s a drama, you can analyze it. An effective horror film goes in your blood and you can’t escape. I think it’s a healthy thing. That’s my view on it. We as people need to be confronted with these things. We are afraid of death and pain and disease. The horror film can explore these radical themes, and we can get a catharsis and be purified and maybe learn a little more about ourselves. And of course you should not forget the pure element of a roller-coaster ride. You should not underestimate that. Some of the critics in Denmark could not understand that. That is also an element, especially in a teenage horror film. You have the jump scenes. I’ve been in a theatre with some of the kids – it did quite good in Denmark. I went to a full cinema filled with girls and boys. It was fantastic, they were screaming, really enjoying themselves, and I got lots of letters from young kids saying it was a perfect film to take a date to, because she got so scared.

That’s also an element – the roller-coaster ride. But if it’s only a roller-coaster ride, I figure there needs to be a little more; you need to dig a little deeper. You have David Lynch; you have David Cronenberg – very intellectual. On the other side you have all the other guys: Eli Roth and…

STEVE BIODROWSKI: Having seen audiences react to the picture, were you surprised by any of the reactions?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: When I watch it with very young people – fifteen or twenty years – they scream a lot. Even at things that seemed too small, that I thought were lame. That was a great surprise. But with a more adult audience, they’re a little more under control. When kids come to the cinema, they’re all hyped up and they want to go for the ride. There was even a guy who wrote that he took a mirror into the cinema to scare some girls. I don’t know…

STEVE BIODROWSKI: Is there anything you are particularly proud of?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: When I saw it in Denmark with a full house, one scene that gets the biggest jump is the first scene with the girl and the washing machines. That one I like. And I like the party scene also, the way it’s shot, where she takes coke. The way it’s solved – I liked that. It worked; people get it. I think the elevator scene also worked quite well because we draw it out quite long.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: Was there anything that did not work as well as you liked?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: There are some scenes that were cut. We shot some scenes that were just wrong. Really slow tempo. We went out and reshot the scene where she comes to him at night. It was shot in daytime. It took out all the tension. It didn’t work at all. He had a long monologue about his grandfather who died near a mirror; it was okay, but it just didn’t work. There’s lots of stuff I would have done differently if I had more time and money. I’m a very bad judge of my own film, because I see all that’s wrong. ‘That’s the day we had to get in early so we only have two set ups.’

STEVE BIODROWSKI: I understand the film did well in Denmark.
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: The press release said we beat all the American horror films. It did 80,000 in Denmark, which is quite good for a genre like this.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: Is that enough to justify a sequel?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: I don’t think so. Probably some of the producers would like a sequel, but I don’t think I would. You would probably have to do it outside of the Danish Film Institute again. In Denmark I want to take a step up the ladder. The next thing I have is ‘THE SHINING Meets THE GRUDGE.’ Also some psychological thriller horror films that are a little bit more adult, if you can say that. It’s not like I look down upon teenage films at all, but I’ve done that one, and it’s a difficult thing to get through at the Danish Film Institute. If I had to choose between teen horror and adult horror, I would choose adult horror.

STEVE BIODROWSKI: You mentioned Ole Bornedal’s American remake of his Danish thriller NIGHTWATCH. Would you do the same for ROOM 205?

MARTIN BARNEWITZ: I would, yes. It would be different. You would have to rewrite it to American sensibilities – American realism. You do different stuff when you come to a dorm in America. People are perhaps a bit younger, a bit more immature. I don’t know – that could just be my prejudice; I have to check that out. If I was that lucky, hopefully the budget would be bigger and you could expand on some things. Get the American sensibility without making it look like any American teen horror film. That would be cool. It would be a chance to redo some of the things I didn’t do enough.

I would love to do something here in America, really hardcore, supernatural, in an American setting. Make it as scary as possible. Of course you have to think something original up, but I think it could be done. Of course the budgets are higher here, so there’s more to play with.
My heart is directed toward horror and thrillers, which is really what I want to do. In Denmark it is difficult to do, so I want to expand my network. I’m hoping to get some stuff going here. Maybe if I can bring a Scandinavian feel here it would be great.

FOOTNOTES: 

  1. What Barnewitz is describing sounds like an “Onryo,” a vengeful ghost. There are several Japanese words starting with “K” that refer to ghosts or spirits (e.g. “Kaidan” or “ghost story), but I can find none that match his description. For example, the Shinto word “kami” refers simply to a spirit within an object.
  2. NIGHTWATCH is not to be mistaken with the 2004 Russian fantasy film (a.k.a. Nochen Dozer). It is a 1994 thriller about a night watchman who finds strange things going on in the building where he works. Bornedal’s 1997 remake  starred Ewan McGregor, Nick Nolte, and Patricia Arquette.

[serialposts]

The Innocents (1961) – Retrospective Review

“Do They Ever Return to Possess the Living?”

That was the question asked in the advertising for this adaptation of Henry James’ classic novelette, The Turn of the Screw.It is a question that goes unanswered by the film itself, which true to the source material leaves the existence of ghosts unclear, forcing audiences to debate whether Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) are really visitors from the grave or simply figments of the demented imagination of governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr). Imagine yourself as the young English governess, given sole responsibility for two young children growing up in an isolated country manor. Shortly after assuming this position (your first), you begin to see the ghosts of your unfortunate predecessor and her lover, a valet with an evil reputation. At first you seek to shield your young charges from the horror haunting the house, but soon you come to believe that your young charges are not only fully aware of the ghosts but actively in league with them. You cannot seek outside help without seeming mad, and your employer, the uncle of the orphaned children, wants under no circumstances to be bothered, leaving you to face the situation alone, and unguided. How can you stop the these visitors from the grave from claiming the “innocents” as their prey?
This unresolved mystery charges the events of THE INNOCENTS with a dreadful sense of uncertainty far more thrilling than the simple supernatural chills of a typical haunted house movie – another “turn of the screw,” as James would have said. At the same time, the ambiguous narrative serves up its share of suggestive shivers; its ghostly apparitions, achieved without special effects, convey a palpable sense of horror. Glimpsed at a distance or through windows, lurking in the shadows of night but sometimes revealing themselves by day, are utterly convincing and magnificently threatening without ever actually doing anything; their supernatural stillness, as much as anything else, sends shivers down the backbone, playing the vertebrae like a skeletal hand tapping on a xylophone.
Truman Capote`s screenplay plays upon the ambiguity of James` tale: are the two children really possessed by the ghosts of the dead, or is their governess merely imagining everything? Producer-director Jack Clayton keeps the film firmly grounded in reality, so that the intrusion of the supernatural strikes far more strongly.
The overt horror in THE INNOCENTS takes the form of Quint and Miss Jessel – tangible apparitions who appear as solid as a living beam, not like some gauzy ghost. Miss Jessel is the more reticent of the two, waling in the shadows at the end of a hallway, standing on the shore across a lake, or crying in a school room. Quint seems more aggressive. First glimpsed atop a tower, he is later seen peering through windows, his expressions paralleling those of Miles, as if the dead valet were the puppeteer pulling the strings of the young lad.

The ghost of Quint (Peter Wyngarde) oversees young Miles (Martin Stephens).

In way, however, the real horror of the film resides in the children. Are Miles and Flora innocent, or are they in league with the ghosts? Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are excellent, their too perfectly precocious innocence suggesting that Miss Giddens’ fears may have some basis in reality after all. Stephens is given more opportunity to shine, but Franklin (who would go on to star in 1974’s THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) holds her own, delivering lovely lines of twisted dialogue such as “Oh, look – there’s a lovely spider, and it’s eating a butterfly!”
Deborah Kerr gives a superb performance, conveying Miss Giddens’ desperate desire to help while overtly suggesting a note of repressed hysteria, hinting that the ghosts may be externalizations of her own inner demons. Kerr brings this complex, redoubtable character to life in THE INNOCENTS with an added layer of her own. In the book, the governess was in her early twenties at most; her youth and inexperience could excuse this missteps she makes in her dire circumstances. Kerr, although youthful, was clearly older than the book’s character, yet she played the part with the naiveté of an inexperienced woman, while adding a range of affected mannerisms hinting at hidden neurosis. Consequently, she comes across as a spinster in the making, her repressed sexuality bubbling to the surface in her obvious attraction to her employer (whom she sees only once, during the job interview that opens the film) and in her reaction to learning that her predecessor engaged stormy nearly sado-masochistic relationship with the valet, a man clearly her social inferior (an unforgivable taboo for a Victorian woman).
Oscar-winner Freddie Francis delivers excellently black-and-white photography in beautiful widescreen Cinemascope. When Miss Giddens wanders the shadowy halls of Bly at night, candelabra in hand as she follows the whispered words of Quint and Jessel, the scene superficial resembles typical horror movie cliches, but it is handled with grand flair, including some clever camera effects to suggest that the moving candles truly are lighting the scene. In the days before film could rely on available light, Francis had special filters fashioned that created a spotlight-like effect, with the image bright in the center of the frame and tapering off to darkness toward the edges. The sequence is perhaps the closest the film comes to visualizing a cinematic equivalent of James’ prose, with the haunting effects serving equally well as evidence of the supernatural or the psychological.
Seen decades after its initial release, THE INNOCENTS is clearly a relic from a bygone era, before The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973), Poltergeist (1982), and the remake of The Haunting (1999) had moved the haunted house sub-genre toward ever more jarring effects. Yet THE INNOCENTS continues to trump all of their best efforts. As frightening as some of those films are, none of them sucker punch the audience with the devastating emotional wallop of Clayton’s masterpiece. The ending seems designed with almost deliberate sadism, building the climax to a breath-taking crescendo and then fading away to an eerie silence that perfectly captures the feel of the novel’s closing line: “We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”

 DVD DETAILS

The 20th Century Fox DVD offers a two-sided disc, one with a widescreen transfer, the other with a full screen transfer. The audio is available in English stereo or Spanish mono, with options for English or Spanish subtitles. Bonus features (the same on both sides of the disc) are limited to the film’s theatrical trailer, plus some clips and recommendations for other Fox home video releases (LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE).
The film is divided into 28 chapters, with titles like “Tears of a Ghost.” The menu images culled from the black-and-white film have been colorized. Both transfers retain the photography’s beautiful contrast of light-and-shadow. The full screen version is not too bad an alternative if you do not have a widescreen television; much of it looks quite nice, but several shots do betray the loss of picture image around the sides. The widescreen transfer is of course preferable, preserving the widescreen compositions of the Cinemascope photography, particularly in shots like the one below, of Miss Giddens forcing Flora to confront the ghost of Miss Jessel (the two heads in the foreground, which are matted into the shot, not filmed live on location, are almost cropped off in the full screen version).

Miss Giddens (Deobrah Kerr) forces Flora (Pamela Franklin) to confront the ghost of Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop).

The trailer is a bit schizophrenic. It emphasizes THE INNOCENT’s  serious approach to the ghost story, citing the resptable credits of Kerr and Clayton,  but there seems to be a deliberate attempt to pump up the volume, including an echoing voice that asks the question quoted at the top of this review. The words are illustrated in eerie letters superimposed over a swirling, almost psychedelic vortex of black-and-white (an image not in the film, which was presumably achieved with paint in a tank). There is also an odd moment when the originally recorded soundtrack rather obviously drops out: the music and background effects disappear while the narrator reads the screenwriting credit for William Archibald and Truman Capote. (Presumably, the final screen credit changed, and the narration had to be re-recorded and awkwardly dropped in.)
Needless to say, this bare-bones presentation does not do justice to Jack Clayton’s classic.. One hopes that, someday, Fox will release a special edition disc loaded with bonus features.
THE INNOCENTS (1961). Produced and directed by Jack Clayton. Screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, basedon the play by Archibald and the novel The Turn of the Screwby Henry James, additional scenes and dialgoue by John Mortimer. Cast: Deborah Kerr, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Megs Jenkins, Michael Redgrave, Peter Wyngarde, Clytie Jessop.

The Others (2001) – DVD Review

The Others (2001)This is a modern horror film with an old-fashioned touch, relying on suspense and the suggestion of the supernatural to generate a disturbing sense of the Uncanny. In the manner of classic haunted house movies like THE INNOCENTS (1960) and THE HAUNTING (1963), THE OTHERS uses a deliberately steady pace to increase tension, gradually drawing viewers into its mystery until they are so engaged that they completely susceptible to the effectively executed scare tactics. Although the actual shocks are few and far between, the film maintains interest with its intelligent storytelling, and the rich atmosphere sustain the mood of supernatural dread throughout, so that when the scares do come, they are worth the wait—even simple things like a slamming door are guaranteed to send you hurtling out of your seat with a scream. Of course, the pacing is a gambit, and it does not always pay off; repeat viewings may have you wishing that the editing were not quite so slow and stately. The scare scenes remain effective, but you may find yourself growing impatient while awaiting their arrival.

SUMMARY

The story is set in a mansion on a small British island, immediately after World War II. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is seeking replacements for three servants who mysteriously disappeared, without explanation. Fortunately, three volunteers show up, led by Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), even though (it later turns out) the advertisement Grace mailed to the local newspaper was never picked up by the postman. Our concern about who these servants really are (and what they’re up to) keeps us off-balance while we try to focus on the real story: Grace’s house seems to be haunted; at least, that’s what her daughter Anne (Alakina Mann) insists Grace refuses to believe in ghosts, and so—at least at first—does her son Nicholas (James Bentley). But soon Nicholas is hearing voices in the night and feeling the touch of a hand. Is there really a ghost, or is his older sister playing a horrible prank on him? Soon Grace herself is having doubts, when she hears unaccountable noises in the attic, and finds a door swung closed in her face by an unseen force.
Mrs. Mills lends a sympathetic ear to Grace’s growing fear. But is she really sincere, or merely plotting in some way to drive Grace and her family from the house? Grace’s doubts melt away after she departs for the village, searching for the local priest to bless the house. Lost in the fog, she never makes it to town; instead, she encounters her husband Charles (Christopher Eccleston), who had been presumed dead in the war. Returning with him, she reverts to her previous skepticism, refusing to listen to her daughter’s tales of “The Others” who inhabit the house. But when Charles departs as mysteriously as he arrived, the evidence of another presence in the house grows too strong to ignore. Grace blames the servants for perpetrating some kind of hoax, but locking them out only traps her inside with the intruders, forcing a confrontation that finally reveals the mystery behind the haunting.

CRITICISM

Writer-director Alejandro Amenabar (who also composed the score) orchestrates all these plot elements wonderfully. He knows how to build up to his shocks slowly and carefully, teasing the audience along, making them wait for the big moments without getting bored. Although the limited cast and locations (a half dozen people in one house and the surrounding grounds) almost suggest a stage play, the film is never static. His camera pulls us in, hints at what lies unseen around the corner, gives us glimpses of horrors sometimes real and sometimes imagined. With the help of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, Amenabar achieves a level of atmosphere equivalent to the best black-and-white pictures of this kind. Filmed mostly in darkened interiors (because Grace’s children are allergic to sunlight), THE OTHERS layers on the shadows and fog (thanks to help from the special effects team, who turned the sunny location into a mist-bound limbo) without ever overdoing the effect. In short, this is a film that gives you what you expect from the best examples of the genre, without ever seeming formulaic or predictable.
THE OTHERS is a film that succeeds because it is built upon simple, basic virtues: use story, characterization, and performance to make the audience care about what’s happening on screen; then when the horror element emerges, viewers will scream in fear instead of laughing in derision.
Because of this approach, one comes away from the film not only impressed with the technical competence that crafted the thrills. One also has a vivid appreciation of the film’s performances, which are as strong as in any mainstream, dramatic film. In particular, Nicole Kidman handles herself quite impressively in the lead role: in the horror sequences, she conveys an impressive array of variations on the stock expression of wide-eyed fear, yet somehow she never descends into camp; in the everyday scenes, she brings a level of neurosis to the character that is always convincing. Her character is a god-fearing woman, and she obviously loves her children, but you know that something was wrong even before the haunting started, something that is not fully explained until the very end, but her performance makes the revelation understandable and believable when it comes (just as Anthony Perkins slyly tipped his hand in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO).
Also deserving mention is Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs. Mills, who gives a carefully measured performance that elicits sympathy, even while sowing doubts in our minds about her true intentions.
With this level of performance at his command, Amenabar had the luxury of crafting a film that eschewed the excess of most contemporary horror films. Subtlety (often a misused synonym for unimaginative technique) in this case does what it is supposed to do, resulting in a film that lives up to (even if it does not quite exceed) the classic films that it aspires to emulate.

LASTING APPEAL?

Grace (Nicole Kidman) confronts an apparition claiming to be her daughter.
Grace (Nicole Kidman) confronts an apparition claiming to be her daughter.

It is a little too soon for THE OTHERS to have developed the patina of age that one normally associates with a “classic.” The film’s lasting impact, if any, is an open question (although it is spoofed in SCARY MOVIE 3—which suggests the audience is expected to recognize the joke—the film has not entered the public consciousness in the manner of THE SIXTH SENSE). Nevertheless, THE OTHERS’ period setting bestowed an almost “classic” feel on the film from its debut, and the passage of even a couple years contribute to a growing appreciation of the film’s virtues, which embody the best of the Victorian ghost story tradition.
M.R. James, one of the great writers in this field, once outlined the method he used in his tales: set the story up slowly; show the characters going about their daily lives; then introduce the supernatural element gradually; at first, let it be heard rather than seen, then glimpsed fleetingly, before finally making its full appearance on stage. This technique works marvelously in short stories such as those that James wrote, but it can be dangerous when applied to a novel or a full-length movie. By keeping the main element of interest, the ghost, off-screen for so long, one risks boring the audience. This may be even more true in this day and age, when viewers expect a full-frontal assault of CGI special effects starting from frame one. Yet somehow, Amenabar managed to fashion just such an old-fashioned ghost story for the screen.
At times, his film resembles a classic Victorian ghost story written by another author named James: Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” The horror of the situation is amplified to terrifying degrees by focusing on the presence of the two children in the house; the performances by the youngsters are always effective, and Bentley is especially good at portraying a level of fear that is usually heart-breaking.
But THE OTHERS is no carbon copy. “Turn of the Screw” rested on two questions: (1) Were the children innocent victims or accomplices of the ghosts? And (2) were there really any ghosts at all, or were they merely imagined by the novelette’s narrator? For the sake of mystery and suspense, Amenabar’s script doesn’t give us all the answers right away, but it soon becomes apparent that there is indeed some kind of supernatural presence in the house, and the children are terrified of it, not in league with it.
[SPOILER ALERT] Still, even with these elements clarified, the story strives to pull off a surprise ending, revealing that not only the suspicious servants but also Grace and her children are the ghosts haunting the house. Viewers who paid close attention to all the clues were able to figure it out, but this is hardly a criticism. Rather, it characteristic of the best kind of plot twist: one that makes sense out of the mysterious events that preceded: Why did the mail stop coming to the house? Why does the pastor no longer visit? Why does Grace say that she feels absolutely cut off from the rest of the world? Why does a surrounding fog make the house seem as if it’s lost in limbo? In short, Amenabar’s script plays fair with its audience, and the resolution is a satisfying, even if you do have a suspicious notion of where the ending is headed.* [END OF SPOILER ALERT]

DVD DETAILS

click to purchase
click to purchase

THE OTHERS is available on DVD as part of Dimension’s “Collector’s Series,” but the two-disc set will hardly satisfy collectors. The presentation of the film is excellent in terms of picture and sound quality, but there is no director’s audio commentary (perhaps because English is not his first language), and the minimal extras hardly seem sufficient to justify the second disc. The longest of these, a so-called “documentary” look behind the scenes, is little more than a promotional puff-piece that falls far short of providing the sort of critical analysis and historical perspective the film deserves—and which would go a long way toward explaining how such a long-shot movie managed to become a front-runner in the box office race. Such a finely craft film deserved a more thorough presentation on DVD.
THE OTHERS (2001). Written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar. Cast: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston, Alakna Mann, James Bentley, Eric Sykes, Elaine Cassidy, Renee Asherson.
FOOTNOTE [with spoilers]:

  • Coming only two years after THE SIXTH SENSE, the ending of THE OTHERS is sometimes perceived as a rip-off of that film. Actually, the surprise twist is more reminiscent of the obscure 1973 film VOICES, which stars David Hemmings and Gayle Hunnicutt as a married couple who have moved into an old house that seems to be haunted; eventually, realize they died in a car crash on the way, and now they are among the ghost haunting the place. William Peter Blatty used a similar plot twist at the end of his short novel Elsewhere, which was published as part of the horror anthology 999, in the appropriate year of 1999.

Dark Water (2005) – Film Review

Despite ho-hum reaction from the film critics, this is not a bad film, although it does suffer from slow pacing. In fact, as a remake it compares more favorably to its source material than THE RING does — at least in part because the Japanese version of DARK WATER is not as good as RINGU. It’s easy to see why an American producer would be attracted to the source material: the tale of divorced mother fighting for her daughter in a custody battle and fending off a malevolent ghost combines real-world believability with supernatural horror, providing a strong identification figure that could appeal to women and thus increase the film’s appeal to an audience not normally known to frequent genre films. Read More