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Throughout the history of cinema, the horror genre has remained fixated on the concept of evil as the basis for horror. Creatures such as the vampire and the werewolf have become the embodiment of that evil. But a tiny minority of films have fought against the idea of evil as a prerequisite for horror, such as The Sixth Sense, which suggested that horror could be just as effective when it resulted from the uncertainty about what happens when we die.

Alejandro Amenábar's The Others treads some of this same territory. It's a remarkably atmospheric and evocative tale that goes where many movies have gone before -- into a haunted house. And it does so without resorting to any fancy special effects, unlike say the remake of The Haunting, where the avalanche of effects completely buried the characters and the more subtle demands of the story. But, thankfully, Amenábar had little interest in special effects. He was more interested in mood and psychology, anxiety and obsession. So with The Others he has crafted a movie rife with paranoia and dark, empty spaces.

The Others introduces us to a young woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman) who has been raising her two young children (newcomers James Bently and Alakina Mann) alone in a huge Victorian mansion secluded on the Isle of Jersey (off the coast of Normandy). She hasn't heard from her husband, who is serving in the military during World War II, for a year and a half. She does her best to take care of the children, but as she explains, they suffer from a rare condition that makes them hyper-sensitive to sunlight; as a result, she keeps the curtains closed, giving the mansion the atmosphere of a cave -- or a crypt. Making matters worse, the mansion is currently without servants. Grace tells us they vanished without providing notice and without even picking up their wages.

Now Grace is overcome with what appears to be paranoia. She insists that no door in the mansion be unlocked without first locking the previous one. We don't know exactly why she has taken such an extreme measure. She doesn't explain her actions. But we see her determination: "No one can make us leave this house," she says. The mystery surrounding the mansion is part of the allure of the movie. We're dropped into a situation that we don't completely understand, and we must piece together the current situation's background.

We're introduced to Grace and her children when three servants (played by Eric Sykes, Elaine Cassidy, and Fionnula Flanagan) show up looking for work and Grace immediately hires them, not even asking for references. Soon afterwards, as curtains are left open and doors are left unlocked, Grace becomes frantic, sternly shouting that the servants must follow her instructions: "My children's lives are at stake!" she says. Grace's daughter talks about a boy who entered her locked room. Grace's son, his face ashen grey, remains in a constant state of terror while his sister feeds off of this fear, taunting him with stories of ghostly apparitions -- and forcing Grace into the position of constantly rushing to her son's defense. Is the house haunted by ghosts? We don't know for sure, but soon Grace stalks the hallways, a shotgun in one hand and a lamp in the other -- headed for madness (a la Jack Nicholson in The Shining).

Like any Victorian mansion, this house can be eerie and ominous. It's filled with heavy curtains, dark wood, heavy columns, oil lamps, and stained glass windows. But significantly, when the curtains are pulled back and light streams in, the rooms look remarkably normal -- even inviting. This isn't an innately evil house, but something inexplicable does seem to be taking place within its walls.

Spanish director Amenábar (who directed the critically-acclaimed Open Your Eyes, which Cameron Crowe is now remaking as Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise in the lead) makes his American debut with The Others, and he shows remarkable skill at creating supernatural suspense without resorting to simple shock effects. Instead, he places the focus upon the state of mind of the characters. We experience the growing rift between Grace and her daughter and her boy's increasing anxiety, and because these conflicts have a strong human dimension, the story acquires an urgency that a simple horror story could have never achieved.

One of the movie's finest scenes comes when Grace hears a noise that couldn't have come from her children or the servants. She tracks the noise through the house to a room used for storage. White sheets cover the furniture. As she stands within the room, nervously considering each piece of covered furniture and listening for another sound, Grace appears to be surrounded by at least a dozen potential ghosts --- at once a witty comment upon the conventional image of a ghost as a fluttering bedsheet and a supremely eerie realization of a childhood fear.

Like The Sixth Sense, The Others builds to a surprising twist in the final scene. Some of the revelations provided during this final twist can be expected, for Amenábar drops many hints throughout the movie. And it's important that we pick up on the clues and the implications they carry because this information helps saturate the movie with a mordant and ominous atmosphere. But Amenábar keeps part of the mystery completely hidden, and when it's revealed, the effect is astonishing. This is a sublimely affecting tale that rethinks the very nature of horror and places it within a human context. At the movie's core is Nicole Kidman as Grace and her eyes convey an amazing depth of emotion. Without her or with a different actress in the lead role, this would have been a very different movie.

Some people will undoubtedly complain that The Others is derivative of The Sixth Sense, but I think The Others survives the comparison because it provides a much more profound revelation. In comparison, The Sixth Sense is somewhat gimmicky. But because The Sixth Sense predates The Others by two years, The Others isn't quite as surprising or as innovative as it might otherwise have appeared. But I think The Others beats The Sixth Sense at its own game.

Only time will tell for certain, but I'm guessing The Others will join the ranks of the screen's finest ghost stories, such as The Uninvited (1944) and The Haunting (1963). It examines the root causes of haunted houses and comes up with an original and compelling explanation that avoids reducing the characters into simple heroes and villains. Amenábar instead gives us ordinary humans struggling to understand a situation that challenges everything they believe.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]

The Others (American site)
Los Otros (Spanish site)



Photos: © 2001 Dimension Films. All rights reserved.