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Films
Monday 20 August 2001

The Others

Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar
Starring Nicole Kidman, Fionulla Flanagan, Alakina Mann, James Bentley
Rating: PG-13
Length: 104 min

Reviewed by John Shirley

(Exclusive to Locus Online)


An isolated, foggy island, near Britain, in the mid-20th century. A fine, lonely old house that would seem haunted even if it werenít. A lovely widow (or is she?) shut up in the house with her two young children, young daughter and younger boy, who just happen to have an incurable allergy to direct sunlight—sunlight can kill them. A rare genetic disease you see. A miasma of grief over Daddy, missing in the war. Three mysterious household servants who turn up unexpectedly at the door. The little girl resentfully muttering of Mumís little episode of madness; the terrified little boy begging her not to speak of it. The ghostly boy Victor who appears only to the little girl—and the family of apparitions who also drop in on her as the spirit moves them. The witchlike old woman who frightens her mostÖ The mysterious, unseen piano player; the thumping footsteps from upstairs when everyone is downstairsÖItís all there, like the elements of a ballet, and each dances its part, in this lovingly gloomy film, with a kind of melancholy rapture.

Hereís a movie thatís almost impossible to honestly review—unless all my readers, both of you guys, have seen it. Itís too good a movie to undercut by giving away its ending. Wouldnít be prudent. But the ending has a lot to do with the movieís character—and reviewing it without describing how the end works with the first part is damned awkward.

But I can say that this movie, at first blush, is close in spirit, as it were, to the original film adaptation of Shirley Jacksonís The Haunting of Hill House—Iím talking about the gothic delights of the Robert Wise film, shot in glorious black and white, not the recent stillborn offspring of Jan de Bont, The Haunting. Though supposedly a remake, the de Bont film has little in common with the work of the brilliant Robert Wise or the great Shirley Jackson. The only good thing about de Bontís incoherent, blundering, special-effects drunken travesty is that it probably garnered some money for Shirley Jacksonís estate. A waste of Liam Neeson.

Though no remake, The Others is everything that de Bont remake wasnít. Itís story isnít the Shirley Jackson story—yet it is clearly its descendent. Itís also related to another group of films, a certain substratum of the ghost story genre, which I canít name without giving away at least some of the ending of The Others.

It may be that writer/director Alejandro Amenábar—director of the widely praised psychological suspense film Open Your Eyes—did a little too much foreshadowing in The Others, sabotaging what heíd hoped would be a surprise climax. Certainly I suspected what was coming, except for a particular twist involving a spiritual Medium, and my wife had it all figured out halfway through. But the movie is so elegantly shot, so unnervingly claustrophobic, that it didnít seem to matter much—one knows how the story behind a ballet will come out, but one enjoys the dancing, the music along the way. Director of Photography Javier Aguirresarobe is doubtless in large part responsible for a cinematic mood that would have set Morticia Addams nostrils quivering appreciatively.

Amenábarís script is nicely tooled, too, the dialogue unsettling but ringing with authenticity. His use of psychological ambiguities (is the child mad? Is Mum?) again makes us think of Shirley Jackson—and also of Nicholas Roeg and Peter Straub. The discussion of the afterlife mythology of Catholic Fundamentalism at its grimmest provides certain hints but also a sense of foreboding, as if the house were in the shadow of a great hammer about to be slammed down by God Himself.

The fine cast also makes the film work. Nicole Kidman seems authentically hung up, inwardly frightened though externally frosted—perhaps as a consequence of living with Tom Cruise and Scientology—and doesnít over-act a whit. One of her better efforts.

How do they get kids so young—Alakina Mann as Anne and James Bentley as Nicholas—to act with such unsettling depth? It makes you want to call Child Protection Services. Just kidding—Iím sure itís just the evident natural talent in these youngsters. Fionnula Flanagan is especially fine as the housekeeper and nanny—sheís subtle, but seems to imply a lifetime of secrets. And her timing is dead on.

The use of sound, taking advantage of all the tricks in the Dolby quadraphonic bag, is remarkably effective. Close your eyes and youíre in a haunted house.

The end of the film isÖ

Oh. I almost forgot.

Anyway, The Others creates dread and concern for its characters, more than it frightens—but it carries its stately dance off in high style. Its twists may be weakened by cinematic precedence, but it plays them out with satisfying gravitas.

Some may find the film too understated, in places, for their jaded tastes. And the editing—unless I got stuck with a crappy print—seems a bit spotty, clashy in places. And the ending might not work for you. But fans of ghost stories and horror in cinema will want to take this one in. Youíll at least have a lively debate about it at dinner afterwards.


John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure books) and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is www.darkecho.com/johnshirley.

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