Released 2001. Director: Alejandro Amenabar
THE HEAVY CURTAINS ARE DRAWN, THE SOLID DOORS LOCKED. Darkness fills the room except for the faint illumination from an oil lamp. Footsteps on the ceiling, crying in the next room, music in the dead of night, secrets hide in the shadows inside a colossal mansion. If you feel the temperature has dropped a little it’s because The Others is a suspenseful and chilly supernatural thriller.
The set-up is familiar, a take on the old haunted house genre where everyone is either a ghost or an unfortunate living soul running scared and trapped in spooky surroundings. Whilst the basic elements are recognizable, writer-director Alejandro Amenabar offers a little more than the usual. He wants us to doubt our understanding of the living and the dead, our perceptions and suspicions. His characters have no way out of the fog-shrouded Channel Islands of 1945. The other-worldliness of the surroundings heightens their predicament, while serving a greater purpose of establishing a grim reality unbeknownst to those in the house.
Nicole Kidman, looking eerily like Grace Kelly, finds herself at the centre of a whirlpool of spirits and mystery. Her two young children suffer from a rare photosensitive condition and cannot be exposed to sunlight or they’ll die. The protective instincts of a mother in the face of an unknown threat is the force that drives the story, fiercely territorial and uncompromising in one of Kidman’s more memorable performances.
To keep her children safe, she makes sure the house is forever cloaked in semi-darkness, with nothing stronger than the flame of an oil lamp. No door must be opened without the previous one being locked first, blocking the light like containing water in a sinking ship. Under such circumstances, how could this not be the perfect setting for a ghostly tale of creaking floorboards, distant whispers and late night piano music?
Visually, this is a photographer’s dream. Shifting light and flowing shadows play hide and seek on walls, stairs and balconies. Outside, a deep fog swallows up the house and hangs over bare branches, fallen leaves and, wait, are those gravestones? Someone buried here? Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography creates an atmosphere thick with portents, inside and outside the house, like a character unto itself, silently watching.
Amenabar relies on old-school methods to sustain an eerie mood. There are no computer-generated special effects here. The Others doesn’t use gore, blood, body count or horror images but clever use of light and sound to maximise the power of suggestion in your mind. As the haunting increases, mother and children are trapped in their own home, lost in a maze, suspended in time. What they fear, and what we don’t see, can often have a stronger presence by being invisible.
The three servants, led by Fionnula Flanagan’s obliging yet guarded housekeeper, seem to be hiding a secret of their own and keeping their employer literally in the dark about many things.
All this leads to a cleverly constructed surprise at the end that questions who “the others” really are. Observant audiences will catch on with the unexpected return of the husband and father, a soldier at war presumed dead. Christopher Eccleston has a short but significant role as the man who comes home to farewell his wife and children.
A story of unfinished business, of restless souls waiting, of a mother questioning her own sanity, The Others speaks of sadness and loss in the afterlife, with suspense, style and supernatural iciness.