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.
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.
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.
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]
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.