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Wednesday, April 17, 2002
The ghost of cinema past
A big, old, gloomy house, some mist-shrouded woods and things that go "bump" in the night -- in an age of digitally enhanced super-effects, can such old-school scare tactics still work? You better believe it: Director Alejandro Amenabar's homage to Gothic horror, "The Others," is a spooky suspense flick that can send shivers down your spine using nothing more than a slammed door.
The Spanish director is very hot property at the moment, thanks to his collaboration with Tom Cruise, who picked up the remake rights to Amenabar's "Open Your Eyes" (which became "Vanilla Sky") and also signed on as producer for "The Others," a project tailored for his then-wife Nicole Kidman. Getting Cruise to produce your third film must be the indie cinema equivalent of amakudari (descent from heaven), but fortunately for movie-goers, Amenabar's worthy of the hype. Like the similarly successful M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense"), Amenabar strives to merge stylized suspense with precisely constructed storytelling, with one eye always on the mind-bending ending.
With "The Others," Amenabar sets up such a deliciously creepy situation there's almost no way he can go wrong. Kidman plays Grace, a war widow living on a lonely estate on the dank Channel island of Jersey. Grace's husband Charles (Christopher Eccleston) went off to fight the Nazis and never returned; now Grace is virtually confined to her house, caring for her two children, Anne and Nicholas (Alakna Mann and James Bentley), who are fatally allergic to sunlight. This means that the house must be kept in darkness at all times, with shutters and blinds nearly obliterating the distinction between day and night.
Some servants looking for work appear on Grace's doorstep, and she hires them at once, since the old servants had "just vanished." Grace lays down the ground rules: All rooms must be locked, so the children don't enter a lit room by mistake. On top of that, Grace's migraines mandate silence: no phone, no radio, not even electricity. "It's rather difficult, to say the least," cautions Grace. "Some would say unbearable."
Things start getting weird when Grace hears a child crying, but it's not her kids -- the cries emanate from a locked, empty room. Anne starts talking of a little boy she has seen in the house; Grace thinks she's just trying to scare her little brother and punishes her. But then Grace starts hearing footsteps where nobody should be.
The tension is unbearable when Grace enters a musty, shut-off room full of furniture draped in white sheets. I mentioned before that Amenabar's fright techniques are old-school, but note his subtle use of technology in this scene: The soundtrack is full of breathy, whispered voices, spinning around the speakers in a breathtaking vortex of sound. David Lynch would surely approve.
It's Kidman's film, though, and her canny performance as Grace is what keeps us riveted. Between her superstitious Catholicism (with visions of damnation and an unforgiving God) and the stress of isolation and abandonment, Grace makes for a seriously unstable heroine. Kidman, so ripe and sensual in "Moulin Rouge," displays opposite qualities here, high-strung, brittle and ready to snap, her face pulled as tight as her hair, her porcelain complexion even more spectral than usual. Kidman allows Grace to waver between caring mom and strict disciplinarian, and we come to fear her dark side: Little Anne speaks resentfully to the maid, Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), about the time mother "went crazy." Yikes.
It's that possibility that keeps us guessing for the whole movie: Are there spirits haunting the house, or is it all in Grace's migraine-addled head? The beauty of the film lies in how it suggests several possibilities, most of them instantly familiar to veteran moviegoers, only to set us up for a real curveball. Red herring has rarely smelled so sweet.
About the only gripe to be made here is that Amenabar is a bit too indebted to his sources. There are shades of Hitchcock's "Rebecca" and Kubrick's "The Shining," (and many lesser-known films as well). These influences haunt "The Others," reminding us of cinema past even as we wish to dissolve into cinema present. Still, if you're going to steal, steal big. That "The Others" holds up to comparison with such films is a testament to the eerie, macabre spell it casts.