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The Others   B

Dimension Films

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Writer: Alejandro Amenábar
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston, Alakina Mann, James Bentley, Eric Sykes, Elaine Cassidy.

Review by Rob Vaux

With the summer movie season in full swing, a film like The Others comes as a quiet surprise. It has no bombastic special effects, no convenient marketing gimmicks, and while it features a bona fide movie star in Nicole Kidman, it isn't really a celebrity showcase. "Old-fashioned" is the phrase that most readily comes to mind: an atmospheric haunted house story that owes more to The Turn of the Screw than A Nightmare on Elm Street. While hardly the most original tale ever told, there aren't many movies like it around these days, and that -- coupled with a fine performance by its leading lady -- gives it a substantial leg up on its teen-obsessed competitors.

Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, whose previous film Abre Los Ojos made a huge splash, has wisely decided to eschew the blood-and-guts CGI tendencies of most modern horror films. Instead, he plunges headfirst into the hallowed traditions of the genre's roots -- fog-shrouded moors, gothic old houses, doors creaking open on their hinges. Normally, such clichés would be unforgivable, but Amenábar and his DP Javier Aguirresarobe have extracted the best elements without stumbling into the worst. Considering the silly extremes that most horror films go to these days, they seem to have made the right decision.

The story takes place on England's Channel Islands, which were cut off during the German attacks in World War II. Kidman's chaste, nervous Grace lives in an old estate with her two children while her husband is off fighting in the war. The little ones -- headstrong Anne (Alakina Mann) and soft-hearted Nicholas (James Bentley) -- are hypersensitive to sunlight and could die if exposed to it. All of the house's doors must be locked and the windows covered with heavy curtains to keep the light out. This gloomy atmosphere does little to assuage Grace's fears that her husband has died, or comfort her when the servants run off one evening. Then a trio of replacements (led by a fine Irish actress named Fionnula Flanagan) arrive, promising to help the fragile family keep things together. Grace seems happy for the aid and allows them to move in after a few stern instructions. And that's when the spooky stuff starts -- noises in the attic... ghostly figures appearing after bedtime... the all-important curtains mysteriously pulled open...

All of it reeks of time-honored spook stories, and The Others might be relegated to an anachronism were it not for Kidman's solid lead performance. Her character has a chilly, edgy approach to the world, hiding her growing fears behind religious platitudes and an imperious hauteur. High-strung heroines are a staple of the genre; Kidman makes sure that hers can stand with the best of them. In her tone and manner, she closely matches the unhinged governess from The Turn of the Screw, and gives Grace an appropriate amount of depth and complexity. Amenábar surrounds his lead with a marvelously creepy atmosphere, borrowing from Hitchcock's "less-is-more" philosophy to generate his thrills. There are no special effects on display, only long hallways, dimmed lights, and looming doors with unknown terrors on the other side. Amenábar clearly favors mood over shocks, and while his story takes its time to unfold, the film's deliciously unsettling tome ensures that we're never bored.

Having said that, it's a little disconcerting to see The Others play so straight with its material. By limiting itself to the traditional constraints of the genre, it can't offer anything new or different by them (though again, its release in the middle of summer adequately masks that). At times, it also comes uncomfortably close to another contemporary ghost story -- the one about the little boy who sees dead people. The Sixth Sense casts a long shadow over movies like this, and sometimes The Others can't resist borrowing a few twists and turns from that earlier film. Certainly, Amenabár's efforts can't seriously compete with M. Night Shaymalan's landmark, but it doesn't help its case by trying to imitate the same shocks.

Thankfully, The Others doesn't need originality to be effective. With a top-notch lead and a talented director, it delivers some smart summer chills that serve as a nice tonic from CGI-laden banality. Sometimes, it's enough just to walk down a different path, no matter how old and overgrown it may be. The Others not only walks it, but has enough assurance to make us want to follow. That's a trick that any self-respecting ghost should learn.

Review published 08.13.2001.

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