The Others at 20: the haunted house movie that revitalized the genre | Nicole kidman


When Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar was directing The Others, his first English-language film, 20 years ago American horror films were in limbo. The wave of neo-slashers unleashed by Wes Craven’s Scream had already run its course and it will be a few more years before other trends take hold, such as the series of Japanese horror remakes like The Ring or the extreme cinema of Saw and Hostel, which seemed to reflect the darkening reality after 9/11 that other mainstream films carefully avoided. There was no better time for an old-fashioned haunted house movie, which had always thrived in a state of limbo, where the living and the dead share the same space – and audiences can’t always tell who is what.

In truth, The Others appears to be a direct reaction to two 1999 films: The Sixth Sense, M Night Shyamalan’s unusually hushed and twisted breakthrough on a Child Who Sees the Dead, and The Haunting, a truly revolting attempt at thriller. classic psychological treatment with success. Amenábar’s response was to correct the remake of The Haunting by returning to the suggestive fundamentals of the 1963 version while also replicating the interlocking surprises of the Shyamalan film, as well as the dynamics of a stressed single mother and children who commune with the dead. He could be accused of shameless commercial calculation if there weren’t any returning films like The Others at all.

Amenábar’s other main source here is The Innocents from 1961, an adaptation of Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Nut, about a governess of a large estate who watches over two children she believes are possessed. Nicole Kidman’s impeccably sculpted hairstyle alone seems to be a nod to Deborah Kerr’s in the previous film, though Amenábar neutralized the underlying sexual currents that gave the Innocents a boost. In fact, the only big deal with The Others, an otherwise alluring horror craft piece, is that it never feels more substantial than mere mimicry, like an apprentice magician showing off all of the master’s old tricks.

The tips are always dazzling, starting with the misty setting of an estate on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, but nonetheless remarkable for its isolation. Even though it is 1945 and World War II is over, there is a strange feeling that protection from a conflict that has ravaged Britain and France has also meant severing ties with humanity itself- same. At the start of the film, Grace (Kidman) has no news from her husband Charles, who has not returned from the war, and her anxiety weighs on her children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), who both seem a little afraid of her. When a trio of servants unexpectedly appear to help run the estate and babysit the children, Grace tells their leader Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan) that they lost electricity during the war and never have took the trouble to restore it. Children are sensitive to light, so lanterns are a good fit for them.

They also work well for Amenábar, as part of his plan to create a permanent state of twilight or night on the estate, regardless of the actual time of day. Sunlight doesn’t seem to be entering Jersey anyway, but Grace insists that all curtains remain drawn on the windows and, for added protection, that the 50 house doors remain closed and locked thanks to a set of 15 ringing keys. Despite these precautions, Anne and Nicholas complain about the “intruders,” including a creepy little boy named Victor, and the new house staff seem terribly suspicious. On the one hand, they responded to a newspaper post that hasn’t even been posted yet.

From a plot point of view, Amenábar’s greatest triumph is making the twist so obvious to audiences that they likely won’t see the real twist to come in the final moments. Amenábar’s ease with multi-layered realities was evident in his previous Spanish-language film, Open Your Eyes (Abre los Ojos), which Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise had Americanized as Vanilla Sky for later that same year. But it’s the simplicity of The Others that remains its greatest asset: with that funeral vibe in place, Amenábar can unblock haunted house favorites such as creaky floors, slowly opening doors, games of music. ‘shadows lit by lamps and the resounding moans of the living dead.

Photograph: Allstar Picture Library Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

While The Others can be compared to the historical horror of Guillermo del Toro’s films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, both set around the Spanish Civil War, Amenábar does not attempt to relate the shocks in the foreground with the real horrors of the second world war. Even when the fate of Grace’s husband is finally revealed, the trauma that could ensue is nothing compared to the immediate circumstances that completely panicked his wife and children. Grace discovered a portrait book filled with grim paintings of the dead, and her daughter was briefly possessed by the face of a withered old woman. They have enough on their plate.

The real legacy of The Others is the confirmation that the old ways still work. There are only a few jaw-dropping shocks in the film, but Amenábar has the patience and confidence to know he can analyze them sparingly as long as he can keep the mood going. As much as the Scream Cycle rewarded a horror audience’s self-awareness, The Others has proven that the same ploys that scared people 40 years earlier can still work on them now. We will always be afraid of the unknown. We will always be afraid of the dark. In good hands, our minds are a house that is easily and eternally haunted.


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