The Others

the-others-the-others-2001-film-32714469-1920-1080This is a tough one: Not only is it impossible to discuss much of The Others without spoiling it, it’s also difficult to explain what a quiet knockout it is, because The Others is the kind of movie that can die by overpraise. It’s a pale and fragile flower, a gothic rose in full bloom, and you’d better not see it with people who enjoy picking movies apart. It’s all mood — all shadow and hush and dread. I loved every slow, heavy, pregnant minute of it, loved having to lean forward to catch every fear-ridden whisper. In terms of becalmed supernatural quietude, this one makes The Sixth Sense look like a clown convention — and it comes from Dimension, of all studios, the Miramax branch famous for ADD-paced teeny-bopper slasher crap.

Nicole Kidman turns out to be ideally cast as Grace, a severe and forbidding woman who lives in a bleak, vast English manor with her two young children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). Kidman has seemed slightly off or neurotic in other roles (I didn’t buy her as a freewheeling sensualist in Moulin Rouge), but whatever’s inside her that always makes her seem skittish and distracted, as if she were always on the verge of being found out, works for her as Grace. Perhaps speaking in something closer to her own accent helps; perhaps the director, Alejandro Amenábar, is that rarity in horror films — an actor’s director.

Amenábar, a Spanish wunderkind who turns thirty next year, already has two impressive features under his belt: 1996’s Thesis, in which a college student is drawn into a mystery surrounding a snuff film (the theme is treated far, far better than it was in 8mm), and 1998’s Abre Los Ojos, which Cameron Crowe remade into a Tom Cruise vehicle (Vanilla Sky). Both are enthralling, De Palma-esque thrillers dealing with the mysteries of perception — is this reality or just reality as we experience it? — and The Others likewise builds to a twisting payoff. Moviegoers who like to announce after the movie that they guessed the surprise ending within five minutes probably shouldn’t bother with The Others, which, again, is more about atmosphere than about clever plot puzzles.

With The Others, Amenábar — whose previous two features are witty and contemporary — has gone back to old-school spooks and scares; the movie has more in common with James Whale than with Hitchcock or De Palma. Grace lives isolated in the fog until three people come to the house looking for work: Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), a nanny; Lydia (Elaine Cassidy), her mute helper; and Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes), a gardener. Grace hires them — her previous servants have run off without notice — and lays down the rules of the house: all doors and windows must be kept shut off from sunlight, which could kill her highly sensitive children. One of the children may be a bit more sensitive than Grace thinks — Anne keeps seeing “Victor,” the ghost of a little boy, along with his parents and an old woman.

That’s about all you should know going in, except that those who’ve seen Amenábar’s other films will appreciate references to them here — at one point, Anne says something that’s a direct quote from Thesis, and both this film and Abre Los Ojos make an innocuous object sinister (sorry, I can’t be more specific). Indeed, Amenábar’s talent is for finding the macabre in the everyday, bending “normal” into something more threatening. The Others may be too quiet and subtle and leisurely for modern audiences (then again, I felt the same way about The Sixth Sense), but Amenábar’s work here, and in the vertiginous Abre Los Ojos, is masterful; using nothing except sound and shadow, he can get an audience leaning forward so far that when the only shock in the movie comes — just a brief image of a face, that’s all — everyone recoils and shrieks. This director even composes his own scores (lush and menacing, heightening but never dominating); the only other filmmaker in this genre who wears so many hats so well is John Carpenter. Of course, Amenábar is no John Carpenter; he’s Amenábar, and a director to watch in his own right.

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