Things That Go Bump in the Theater

Aug 11, 2001
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A smart horror movie with brilliant direction and impeccable performances

Cons:Because it's not dumb, it's sure to die a quick death at the box office

The Bottom Line: Out of the fog and shadows comes one of the year's best films: a literate ghost story that continues to echo in your mind long after it's over.

The only blood and guts in The Others are the ones inside your body: the blood that will be pounding like a racehorse through your veins, the guts that will be knotted like a Bavarian pretzel. By the time the movie whispers to a halt, you might have a bad case of the spinal chills, too.

The Others is the kind of motion picture that’s glaringly different from most of the loud, obnoxious dreck-and-flotsam coming from Hollywood these days. Its power lies in the unseen, the unspoken, the unheard. Until the last five minutes, you are never quite certain what exactly is taking place up on the screen; you just know you dread the outcome.

At this point, if I was truly looking out for your best interest, I would make a soft exit from this review, simply telling you as urgently and convincingly as I could: “Go see it!” Go see it now before you hear too much, before your eyes happen to fall upon a review which says too much, before the movie vanishes like a ghost from your neighborhood cineplex. In fact, if I were you, I’d stop reading this review right now. Grab the car keys and out the door you go.

But if you do decide to linger here, I promise I’ll do my best not to spoil the spine-chilling pleasures of The Others. Perhaps I’ve already said too much.

Everywhere you go, you’re likely to hear people say The Others is this summer’s The Sixth Sense and it’s an entirely fair comparison. Both are patiently-paced (some naysayers might grumble “snail’s-paced”), brooding and so full of atmosphere you’re liable to suffocate in the thick air permeating the theater. Like The Sixth Sense, I think The Others will reward repeat viewers just as much the second time around.

Written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar (he also did the Spanish films Butterfly and Open Your Eyes), the movie literally opens with a scream. Grace (Nicole Kidman) wakes from a nightmare in the large mansion where she lives with her two young children Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). It is 1945 and Grace’s husband hasn’t yet returned home from the war and the young housewife is left on her own to run the household.

Help soon arrives in the form of three domestic servants who appear rather mysterious out of the fog that constantly shrouds the mansion: the grandmotherly nanny Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan, Waking Ned Devine), the doddering old gardener Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and the mute cook Lydia (Elaine Cassidy, Felicia’s Journey). They appear to be answering an ad Grace put in the local newspaper after the house’s previous servants just up and vanished one day.

Grace gives the three servants a tour of the house and it becomes clear why it’s hard to keep good help around. “This house is not exactly an ideal home,” Grace explains. Rooms must be kept in constant darkness because the children have a photosensitive allergy. One drop of sunshine and they break out in sores which could eventually lead to death. Another rule: no door must be opened without the previous one being closed. Grace carries around a large ring of keys and is obsessed with locking up everything tight as a drum. Finally, life should be maintained at whisper levels. “Silence is something that we prize very highly in the house.”

Silence is also something the movie treats like gold. There are shots of empty rooms, void of all noise and movement, which are as menacing as any knife-wielding, mask-wearing killer in your typical horror movie.

But, see, The Others is anything but typical. It is a film drenched in darkness. Sunlight, rather than shadow, is the thing to dread.

It’s a horror film which does not depend on traditional thrills. (except for one gotcha! scare which simultaneously lifted every person two inches off their seat at the showing I attended). It does not depend on gore or rotted-skin makeup to make our own skin crawl. The chills spring from the dark closet of our imaginations and from the way Kidman and the other actors convince us that there is something truly amiss in the mansion. The performances, by the way, are the fulcrum of the entire movie. Kidman quickly erases our memory of her tabloid summer with what is flat-out the best work she’s ever done in front of the camera. If I was Haley Joel Osment, I’d be whispering, “I see an Oscar nomination.” If I was Osment, I’d also be nervous about young Alakina Mann and James Bentley—both give incredibly nuanced performances as pale, neurotic prisoners of their own home.

So, no, The Others is not like most other movies—especially the dumbed-down blockbusters of summer. It is complex and literate, as psychologically unnerving as Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw.

It’s a ghost story, but there are no “white sheets and clanking chains” as Anne would say, trying to spook her younger brother. Bumps and thumps (superbly amplified by Dolby) come from rooms that, according to Grace’s rule, should have been locked and empty. The children are adorably cute but they’re also vaguely unsettling. Dread gradually gathers as thick as the dust on the mantelpiece. “What exactly is going on in that house?” we wonder.

All is eventually revealed and when that moment comes, you can practically feel the oxygen being sucked out of the theater in a collective gasp. As the end credits rolled at the matinee I attended, some audience members remained frozen in the seats. They were, no doubt, waiting for the gooseflesh to subside before they walked out into the bright, haunting sunlight.

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