|Others, The (Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 14 May 2002|
Ghost stories have been done, literally, to death. Yet there is something about the hint of the supernatural, the chance of possibly viewing something that has so far gone unseen and didn’t quite make it to the grave, that draws audiences into such a tale. Even the youngest viewers are familiar with stories of ghostly haunts and Things That Go Bump In The Night.
Director and Writer Alejandro Amenábar has created a quiet and chilling masterpiece in "The Others." Where so many horror films of the day rely on special effects and gore, Amenábar crafts his tale with subtlety and delicious anticipation on part of the audience. The viewers, after all, have probably seen ghost stories before and are familiar with the twists and turns most often taken. Clues are provided throughout the movie, and woven with such dexterity that watchers with avid imaginations will constantly be second-guessing themselves and the plot.
Nicole Kidman turns in an elegant performance as Grace, the mother of two children who have fatal allergies to the sun. The time period is 1945, just after World War II, and the setting is a quiet, out-of-the-way English island manor house. Grace’s husband went off to war and has been among the missing for a year-and-a-half.
Chapter 1 opens with Grace’s soft voice telling a story, an innocuous beginning on the surface, but one that steadily draws the audience in and acclimates them to the tale’s seemingly easy and gentle pace. However, the pictures that go along with the story throw a shadow over it. The pencil drawings of a screaming child and an angel puppet with a broken neck are immediately unsettling.
Chapter 2 opens with Grace screaming herself to wakefulness in the house. With the house located on an island, the weather brings in great rolling masses of fog from the sea that the movie creates through the use of smoke machines and computer graphics. The establishing shots surrounding the house as the story advances set the mood eloquently. The feeling of isolation comes across as suffocating.
Chapter 2 also sets the tone for most of the recurring noises that are heard place throughout the movie. With the absence of background music in most of the film, the little sounds take center stage and underscore the action. Doors swing open and make sounds even on well-oiled hinges, then shut with subtle bangs. Footsteps clack and clatter across the wooden floors and stair steps, reminding the viewer again and again how empty and cavernous the house is.
Three people, introduced as Mrs. Mills, Mr. Tuttle and Lydia, show up at Grace’s house, appearing almost out of nowhere. They let Grace know that they’re there to apply for jobs as servants. Grace lets them into the house, and talks to them. The last servants, Grace tells them, ran off in the middle of the night with no explanation. At those words, Amenábar starts quietly stealing the audience’s attention. Even the most jaded viewer's ears prick up at the mysterious disappearance.
Taking Mrs. Mills, Mr. Tuttle, and Lydia on a tour of the house, Grace tells them also that "at times, this house is not exactly an ideal home." A trained viewer can almost hear the organ music, but Amenábar lets the jarring comment pass without fanfare, further intriguing his audience. Grace goes on to explain one of the most important rules of the house: that one door is never to be opened without first closing the last. Rules this early in the game in a ghost story, as every viewer knows, have to be broken, and most watchers will start speculating who will do it and why in that moment.
Chapter 2 opens with the sliding rasps made as Grace and the new servants close the curtains in preparation to meeting the children, Anne and Nicholas. The house exists without any electrical conveniences, maintaining soft lantern light, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. Grace admonishes the new servants to never open the curtains in rooms where the children are, because the exposure to sunlight will kill them.
The children are slowly brought onto the stage, deliberately raising the interest on part of the viewer. Their voices, at first, are muted and soft, and the viewer, like the three new servants, can’t make out what is being said. In a later scene, when the children are having their breakfast, the sound of the wood crackling and popping in the potbellied stove rumbles pleasingly from the main speakers while the center speaker carries the conversation between the children, which becomes decidedly hostile. Anne argues with Nicholas that bad things are going to happen, and that the new servants will get scared off as well.
In Chapter 3, the audience learns that the letter Grace was going to mail to advertise for new servants was never sent. She confronts Mrs. Mills about this, and the woman says that the three of them had arrived at the house in hopes of securing a job. Okay, at this point warning bells start to go off in the viewer's head. Nothing is quite what it seems. Mrs. Mills goes on to say that all of them have worked in the house before and they are aware of all the building’s secrets.
Mr. Tuttle’s broom whispering softly against the stone steps outside the house in the fog opens Chapter 4 and nudges the anticipation up. An eerie discussion opens up as Grace schools her children and gets irritated with a response to a question she poses. She asks Nicholas to name the four Hells, including the Children's Limbo. As the argument continues, Grace orders her children to study in separate areas of the house. Anne’s and Nicholas’ obvious fear of being separated and left on their own is palpable, but Grace won’t be swayed. The audience recognizes the high-strung tension that fills her, and suddenly doubts about her are introduced. Is she a victim, a potential threat, or both?
The children become frantic and ask her what they’re supposed to do if they see the ghost. Grace tells them that there are no ghosts, and that she can’t be with them all the time.
Chapter 5 opens with the sound of a child crying, echoing through the main and center speakers. Grace goes to her children, believing she is hearing them, only to find that neither of them is crying. However, irritated and near-frantic for an explanation, she blames Anne. Anne says that a boy named Victor was crying, and that they were going to have to leave the house. Anne goes on to say that Victor got out of the room by the door. Grace responds that such a thing is impossible because she locked all the doors, only to find that one of the doors is unlocked. The confrontation with the servants doesn't provide any answers, just more questions for Grace, as well as the viewer.
The unease of the story begins growing tighter in Chapter 6, when Anne awakens Nicholas and tells him that Victor is opening the drapes in their room. If they’d slept until morning, the sun could hurt or even kill them. Nicholas starts freaking out, accusing Anne of trying to scare him as she has in the past. Then running feet drum through the scene, exploding through the subwoofer with a suddenness that guarantees an adrenaline spike for even the most reluctant viewer at this point.
In Chapter 7, Grace is alone. An explosion of running feet hammers from the subwoofer, causing the viewer’s heart to jump into high gear. Pursuing the unseen visitor, Grace becomes convinced that an intruder has broken into the house. The music score picks up dramatically as Grace explores one of the upstairs rooms. If the music were present throughout the movie, it would lose its impact. Placed as it is at strategic moments, the music slams into the watcher’s adrenaline. Doors open and slam shut throughout the house.
The rest of the movie unwinds at a nail-biting clip. Just as the viewer gets enough information to form an opinion or ferret out a possible scenario, Amenábar introduces new details or hints at wrinkles. Going into the movie any further would spoil the twists and turns and surprises that the viewer has in store. As Amenábar lays out his story piece by piece, he weaves his spell delicately, using the absence of constant sound, frantic and hurried whispers of oblique conversation, fog-shrouded exteriors of the grounds, and shadow images to amp up the watcher's involvement. And he still manages to pull off a twist ending that is simply awesome.
The bonus features are a little lean on content in some ways for a two-disc collection. There is no director’s commentary, which is a shame, as it would been interesting to hear Amenábar’s take on why he did things the way he did them. The documentary on Xeroderma Pigmentosum is welcome and very informative regarding the disease, as well as how families cope with it. One of the most fascinating bits is the featurette on the visual effects, showing how four screens were blended to create one very atmospheric scene of incredible depth and atmosphere.
"The Others" is an excellent rental for anyone interested in an evening's entertainment where the brain is not simply shelved after a hard day's work. Amenábar pulls his audience into the film willingly, presenting them with enough information to start making guesses and conjectures, until the viewer makes the film his or her own. For serious ghost story collectors, "The Others" is a definite keeper and belongs on the shelf where the movie can haunt again and again.