The Sad, Soulful Shivers of The Others (2001)

The Others (2001) Directed by Alejandro Amen·barShown: Nicole Kidman

To view The Others click here.

A couple of weeks ago, British newspaper The Guardian provoked some vocal reactions from more than a few film fans with an article called “How post-horror movies are taking over cinema,” which made the case that the recent spate of indie films dealing with supernatural tropes represents some evolutionary step within (or beyond) the genre. The argument here is that films from the past two years like It Comes at Night (2017), A Ghost Story (2017), Personal Shopper (2016), The Witch (2015), or Get Out (2017) take a disreputable type of film and make it palatable for critics and art house audiences because they’re trying to say something about the human condition or, you know, not actually stooping to traditional scares.

Of course, anyone familiar with horror films beyond mega-franchises like Saw (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2017) or the spate of toxic remakes of 1970s and 1980s hits will recognize how ill-founded this claim is. Since the silent era the genre has been fertile ground for complex ideas, visual experimentation, unorthodox character development and more social commentary about feminism, race issues and class struggles than just about any Best Picture winner you can name. It’s also the perfect territory for filmmakers to find their voice and take chances that would have been absolutely forbidden elsewhere. Case in point: The Others (2001), directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar.

It wasn’t much of a secret that this film was intended to ride the wave of awards-caliber ghost stories that blossomed after The Sixth Sense (1999), a surprise summer smash that made an instant name out of M. Night Shyamalan and trounced the same summer’s big-budget haunted house film, The Haunting. Soon theaters were filled with twisty supernatural-tinged films like What Lies Beneath (2000), Session 9 (2001) and Jeepers Creepers (2001), which prepared moviegoers for the decade-long wave of Japanese horror remakes instigated by Gore Verbinski’s wildly overachieving The Ring (2002). Not quite as publicized but just as rewarding was the Spanish horror boom that produced filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, who chimed in on the ghost craze with his own lyrical The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Álex de la Iglesia, and Jaume Balagueró.

Miramax took note of what was going on in Spain and recruited both Amenábar and Balagueró and to make their English-language debuts with The Others and the troubled Darkness (2002) respectively. Though far from the most prolific filmmaker (he still has only six features to his credit over a two-decade period), Amenábar was one of the leading lights at the time based on his stylish and suspenseful debut feature, the college campus snuff movie shocker Thesis (1996), and his mind-bending sci-fi character study Open Your Eyes (1997), which was Americanized by Cameron Crowe into another 2001 release, Vanilla Sky. When it opened in August of 2001, The Others turned out to be a big hit as well; a melancholy and highly atmospheric riff on ideas from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw transposed to one of the Channel Islands in the aftermath of World War II. Grace (Nicole Kidman) has been left in charge of her two sunlight-averse children (James Bentley and Alakina Mann) with the whereabouts of their enlisted father (Christopher Eccleston) still unknown, when three new servants (Fionnula Flanagan, Eric Sykes and Elaine Cassidy) show up responding to a help wanted ad claiming they know the house well from a previous employer. Inexplicable events ensue, all tied to disturbing revelations about the house and the family itself.

Amenábar is in peak visual form here, creating an isolated and deeply sad environment where death and an inevitable sense of loss hangs over the proceedings from the opening frames. He’s also a rare case of a director serving as his own composer (a duty he performs on his other work as well), providing an elegant, eerie musical accompaniment that ebbs and flows perfectly with Grace’s unraveling state of mind. Still oddly underrated in most circles as an actress despite her star status and awards, Kidman is perfectly cast here for reasons that can’t be fully disclosed without spoiling the story; let’s just say she manages to embody panic, maternal concern, rigidity and trauma all at the same time while barely batting an eye.

The Others (2001)  Directed by Alejandro Amen·bar Shown: Nicole Kidman

It’s largely to Kidman’s credit that the film’s ending works as well as it does. Technically there is a twist, or a couple of them in fact, but it doesn’t particularly matter how much you figure out beforehand. The richness of the experience lies in the essential horror at the heart of the story, which is rooted in something much more tangible and relatable than the idea of ghosts wandering through a haunted house. Everything falls into place and makes sense, but the film has the good sense to leave the viewer feeling unsettled and in a bit of limbo when the closing credits come up, free to fill in the events that might happen afterwards and feel more than a bit of a chill coming back to the real world of daylight and rational thought.

ACTRESS JENNIFER LOPEZ ARRIVES AT THE WEDDING PLANNER PREMIERE

I’m still not sure whether it’s a good or bad thing that Amenábar never made another horror film after this one. Perhaps he was afraid of being pigeonholed after doing two scary features, or maybe there was nowhere else he could go after this one. It certainly worked on audiences; this film was a real joy to see opening weekend in a packed theater with noises of increasing disquiet coming from viewers before the shrieks finally started erupting in full force during the last fifteen minutes. After this Amenábar made an unexpected detour into prestige drama with the acclaimed, fact-based The Sea Inside (2004), whose depiction of the euthanasia crusade of Ramón Sampedro earned a slew of awards including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Strangely, his work since then has been few and far between, consisting of the costly and effective historical biography Agora (2009) and the poorly received Regression (2015). It’s odd how someone can be at the top of their game and then disappear from the cinematic conversation entirely, but he’s someone well worth rediscovering and way overdue for a comeback on the big screen in the near future.

Nathaniel Thompson

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5 Responses The Sad, Soulful Shivers of The Others (2001)
Posted By La Otra : July 19, 2017 1:30 pm

It’s been years since I’ve seen TÉSIS, but I can attest to its unnerving and harrowing effectiveness. The underlying evil in everyday settings underscores the horror of feminicides.
Also, AGORA is an impressively done film of the state of pre-Christian knowledge and philosophy, and its inevitable clash with early Christianity. Rachel Weisz portrays Hypatia,an historical figure who is caught up in the sweep and turmoil of it all.
I always thought Amenábar was a very interesting director. Hope he continues to create.

Posted By Doug : July 19, 2017 4:13 pm

I have great respect for Nicole Kidman as an actress-she has great range and doesn’t always take the ‘easy’ roles. Even in clunkers such as “Batman Forever” she did well.
“Bewitched”-she was a delight, and hit the perfect tone for the movie.

Posted By AL : July 19, 2017 7:02 pm

NL–a brilliant essay–thank you…

Posted By George : July 21, 2017 2:54 pm

Kidman is good in the current remake of The Beguiled. Although I don’t think it’s as good as Don Siegel’s 1971 version, I can’t fault the acting by Kidman, Dunst, Farrell and really the entire cast.

Posted By robbushblog : August 2, 2017 3:49 pm

I love this movie. It’s that creeping sense of uneasiness and possible dread that I love about it. It’s so quiet, AND THEN IT’S NOT! You hit the nail on the head with the comparison to Turn of the Screw. It is a spiritual sister to THE INNOCENTS. Watching the two back to back would be a great double bill.

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