AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 101 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Grace Stewart is a devout Roman Catholic mother who lives with her two young children in a remote country house in Jersey in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The children, Anne and Nicholas, have an uncommon disease, characterized by photosensitivity, so their lives are structured around a series of complex rules to protect them from inadvertent exposure to sunlight. Soon after three servants arrive at the house – aging housekeeper Mrs. Bertha Mills, elderly gardener Edmund Tuttle, and a mute girl named Lydia – Anne draws pictures of four people she has seen in the house numerous times: a man, woman, a boy called Victor, and an old woman, While Grace finds a 19th-century book of the dead, an album of mourning portrait photos of deceased family members from a previous generation, with some missing pages….and begins to hear noises….
Though it’s now got competition now I’ve finally seen The Orphanage, The Others remains my favourite ghost movie of the last couple of decades, a film that for me is easily the equal of The Haunting and within shouting distance of the film I believe to be the greatest ghost picture The Innocents, which I reviewed for HCF back when it was just getting started but intend to re-review one day so I really do it justice. Films like Insidious and The Conjuring do frighten me on first viewing, but for me personally they don’t tend to work nearly as well when I watch them again at home [I’m going to wait a long time before I see The Conjuring 2 again because that film really worked me up in the way a film like it should and I’d like to try to replicate just a bit of that if I can]. But The Others, even though it has a twist which is absolutely brilliant and which totally floored me and many others in cinemas in 2001, works almost as well when seen again, its chill only diminishing slightly. This is largely because of the incredibly creepy atmosphere that director Alejandro Amenabar seems to create almost effortlessly, but also because one realises how cleverly the screenplay has been created. One notices that it actually gives us major hints as to what is going on throughout – in fact it pretty much tells us in the very first couple of minutes in a line spoken by one particular character – but I’m going to do my best to not reveal too much and totally ruin it for any reader who has yet to watch this constantly rewarding, emotionally rich yet extremely spooky, film – but some things may still be picked up on hence the spoiler warning anyway!
The basis for this film is an episode of the British series Armchair Theatre called The Others made in 1970, and remade as a feature in 1972 called Voices. I remember hearing about this when The Others came out and meant to hunt down a copy back then but never got round to doing so. From what I’ve read it involves a couple, with no kids involved, who are plagued by supernatural happenings and is as much influenced by Carnival Of Souls as it is more conventional ghost stories, but I’m finally going to buy it and report back with a review. Amenabar’s screenplay was a bit more elaborate than the one in the earlier film, and I also think that he may have been inspired by 1995’s Haunted [now there’s an underrated, underappreciated horror film!]. The search for the two children took seven months as the filmmakers scoured over 70 schools and interviewed 5000 kids. Aside from the scene where Grace walks in the fog and encounters her husband which was filmed in the gardens of Penshurst Palace in Kent, UK, the film was shot in Spain, the exteriors of the house being an English-style mansion in Cantabrie, but all the interiors created on a soundstage, where Amenabar got cinematographer Javier Agguiresarobe to film many of the scenes using just natural light. The film was a huge hit commercially but I’ve always thought that the critics often underrated the movie just a little – probably just because it was a horror film. Supposedly Amenabar made some slight alterations to the film for its home viewing release, cutting some lines of dialogue and shortening the title sequence, though I can’t say I noticed the differences.
You can’t really get a better opening to a ghost story than having the voice of the main character saying: “Now children, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”. It sets the scene so perfectly. Grace proceeds to tell her children the story of the creation, and it’s already made obvious that Grace is strictly religious and Anne and Nicolas are already becoming a bit sceptical, Anne querying how God could have made the world in seven days. The title sequence actually shows scenes from the film in drawing form, though of course when you see the film for the first time this isn’t obvious. Then we cut to another example of a perfect opening to a story like this; somebody [Grace] waking up screaming. I’ve read that the film then takes on a very slow pace but in truth it’s not long before creepy stuff begins to occur, and in any case the set-up – Grace has to keep her kids out of the sunlight meaning that the darkness is embraced rather than recoiled from – is so different from the norm that one is on edge right from the beginning. One thing that really came across strongly to me this time is how unsympathetic a character Grace is. She’s certainly not too nice to her kids, not even letting them study the Bible in the same room, while watching the film in retrospect tells us that if she wasn’t so rigid and narrow minded then she’d have probably realised exactly what’s really going on very early.
Some of the tried and tested devices, like hearing a piano playing apparently by itself, are employed and still work, and a bit in the kid’s bedroom where the unseen ghost Victor closes the curtains and his hand is seen touching Nicholas’s hand still provides a chill even after several viewings because the film then leads us to start thinking about events from the point of view of ‘the others’ [there’s a great whole other movie in there], and things seem just as unsettling. Then there’s the disembodied head which is revealed to belong to a painting [probably the only false scare of the film so it’s justified] and – something I noticed this time – the slight sound of chains accompanying the arrival of Grace’s husband Charles, pretty much telling us that he’s probably a ghost [though it seems extremely obvious anyway so I wouldn’t say this is a spoiler] in a scene which has such a sad feel to it because this particular ghost just doesn’t seem to know where he is or what he is. All this time the three servants are lurking around and seem to be up to something mysterious. Now I think that the filmmakers – or maybe the studio – made a mistake in having probably the scariest moment shown on a few TV programmes before the movie was released – while that old lady in Anne’s communion dress is perhaps the only thing in the film that doesn’t entirely make sense to me, except to tell you what we’ve already been getting an impression of – that Grace may actually be a little mad.
Grace’s journey from ignorance to realisation and acceptance is strengthened by quite a realistic depiction of a relationship involving two siblings and a controlling, even dysfunctional, but still loving, mother. When Anne, who is somewhat estranged from her mother, finally embraces her and Grace for once seems really happy, it’s really touching. The emotional dimension and character interplay is extremely well worked out, and it’s nice that, while Grace’s ideas about things are thrown into disarray, her religious beliefs aren’t entirely dismissed [after all, there are ghosts in the Bible]. Instead, the lapsed Catholic that is Amenabar just has her not knowing what to believe any more, the film telling us that to be open minded about everything is the best way to be. The movie actually leaves quite a lot of food for thought but this in no way overshadows its amazing texture and look, with light and dark gently [it’s never overdone, like much else in the film] doing battle inside the house while the camera slowly glides towards characters and into half-lit rooms where anything could be lurking in the shadows. The fact that many of the rooms seem almost empty, and lack the light necessary for the set designs to be fully seen in the way they would be otherwise, also really helps. Meanwhile greens and greys dominate the foggy exteriors where you can almost touch the mist, so well is it realised. And special effects are very minimal, in an effort to make the story as convincing as possible. There’s a chase near the end where someone’s fleeing some ghosts, and the person being pursued rushes into the house and locks the door. You’d expect the ghosts to walk through the door or the wall, but in this movie they don’t.
Kidman’s Australian accent shows through a bit too much, but otherwise she gives a pretty faultless performance and one of her best, though it’s helped by the terrific chemistry and interplay she has with young Alakina Mann and James Bentley. One feels that the three must have bonded incredibly well on set. One performance which I don’t think has been given its due is that of Fionulla Flanagan as the servant Bertha who clearly knows more than she’s letting on. When you see the film for the second time, one can appreciate how knowing and subtle it is. Amenabar also composed the music score for The Others and it strikes a nice balance between being slightly lyrical and being unsettling, and enhancing the frights at the right moments without overdoing it. The Others is really a very sad film, the sadness emitting from every corner of every screen, while never causing the viewer to actually cry. Instead, it exudes a subtler kind of sadness, a quietly melancholic air as its lost, confused characters try to find themselves. And it really is a horror classic, an old-fashioned ghost story in the best possible manner, most of the traditional elements being given a really clever spin that also makes it still seem rather fresh even when seen now.