With a nod to a host of psychological ghost stories (particularly Henry James’ Turn of the Screw), Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar fashions a suitably sinister environment for his first English-language film, The Others.
During the waning days of World War II in the Channel Islands, a mother watches over her two young children, but something is amiss. Out of the ever-present fog emerge three eager servants, intimately familiar with the isolated manor house and willing to follow the strict guidelines set down by Grace (Nicole Kidman) for the care of the precocious Anne (Alakina Mann) and perpetually frightened Nicholas (James Bentley).
Amenábar (who also composed the old-fashioned, spooky score) soon piles on creepy details: The children’s rare disease makes them ultrasensitive to daylight, which means they live a vampirelike existence behind perpetually drawn drapes; Grace’s fire-and-brimstone religious beliefs leave no breathing room for her already confined offspring; the sympathetic housekeeper, Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), is efficient, careful and serenely accepting of supernatural forces at work around them; and bizarre occurrences point to increasingly aggressive behavior from the ghostly “others,” who appear to be vying with Grace’s family for possession of their near-empty home.
By the time Grace’s presumed-dead husband (Christopher Eccleston) appears, it’s clear that Amenábar is playing with audience perceptions, but his twist ending is painfully apparent early in the film, especially to anyone who saw his labyrinthine and maddening Open Your Eyes (which Cameron Crowe is inexplicably remaking into Vanilla Sky).
This unsatisfying haunted-house tour (which contains some echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) offers few real scares, but does accommodate several terrifyingly good performances, particularly a prickly Kidman, whose tightly wound control freak demands absolute obedience, and a spectral Eccleston, who gazes at once familiar surroundings with the eyes of a doomed man.
The Others is fueled not just by fear of the unknown, but a child’s fear of abandonment, which makes the denouement not just predictable, but exploitative as well. In his ghostly morality tale, Amenábar chooses to sacrifice the living to reward the dead.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].