When was the last time you saw a truly frightening 'haunted house' movie, the kind that puts you on the edge of your seat for two hours with claustrophobic anticipation? Well, with recent duds like "House on Haunted Hill" still fresh in my mind, neither can I. In an age where horror usually means: (a) overblown special effects compensating for cardboard characters and well-trampled clichés ("The Haunting"), (b) well-scrubbed teens being picked off by yet another mad slasher in the latest "Scream"-wannabe ("Valentine"), or (c) idiotic parodies of films where well-scrubbed teams get picked off by yet another mad slasher in the latest "Scream"-wannabe ("Scary Movie 2"), it is a joy to see a classy 'old school' 'haunted house' film like "The Others", which has restored my faith in this horror sub-genre (especially from Dimension Films, usually associated with more exploitational fare such as "From Dusk Till Dawn"). With its smart and suspenseful build-up, great characters, and a superb cast headlined by Nicole Kidman ("Moulin Rouge"), "The Others" is a safe bet for some genuinely summer thrills and chills.
The year is 1945 and on the mist-enveloped Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, Grace (Kidman) lives alone in a crumbling mansion with her two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). The children are afflicted by a condition that makes them extremely photosensitive, so much so that anything more intense than candlelight will cause their skin to blister and burn, eventually becoming fatal. As a result, all the windows of the grand residence are shuttered and the doors must always kept closed in order to contain the sunlight from the outside. In addition, Grace's husband Charles (Christopher Eccleston of "Gone in 60 Seconds") has left to join the war effort and has not been heard from in over a year.
The film kicks off with the arrival of three new hired hands at the house: Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan of "Waking Ned Devine") the feisty nanny, Lydia (Elaine Cassidy of "Felicia's Journey") the mute servant girl, and Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) the aged gardener. They have come to replace the previous group of servants, who all disappeared the week before without a trace. Unfortunately, this is only the first in what will be a series of strange goings-on at the old house. Strange noises and mysterious voices are heard, doors open and close by themselves, and most disturbing of all, the children claim to be in contact with 'the others', unseen intruders who say that they want the house for themselves. And if that isn't bad enough, it seems that the three new servants know something about the supernatural goings-on, and may even be conspiring against Grace.
Four years ago, writer/director Alejandro Amenabar crafted "Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos)", a Spanish film that created quite a stir at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and saw a limited stateside release in early 1999. Unfortunately, because it happened to be the year of the 'virtual reality movie' (thanks to "The Matrix", "The Thirteenth Floor", and "eXistenZ"), Amenabar's sci-fi/existentialist thriller ended up getting lost in the shuffle (though a remake directed by Cameron Crowe, "Vanilla Sky", will be hitting theaters this fall). With "The Others", Amenabar has created yet another intriguing thriller, only this time by dabbling in the supernatural. Similar to "Open Your Eyes", the writer/director presents the audience with an ever-deepening enigma that starts off slow, only to unfold in unexpected and genuinely surprising ways. Just when you think you've figured out the whole story, the script throws another curve to challenge your presuppositions and further deepen your curiosity. And despite all the surprising revelations that are unveiled, particularly during the 'gee-whiz' twist ending, the story does a decent turn at maintaining its internal logic throughout.
In addition to the clever script and Amenabar's assured direction, "The Others" features a strong cast. The camera treats Kidman (whose ex- Tom Cruise produced the film) like a starlet from Hollywood's Golden Era as she portrays Grace with aplomb, conveying both the matron's poise, as well as her often strict and overbearing demeanor. Mann and Bentley are credible as a study in contrasts for the two children who 'see dead people'-- the former being the more rebellious and vocal one, with the latter being subject to paralyzing anxiety. Finally, Flanagan's subtle portrayal of Mrs. Mills conveys both the compassion she feels for the predicament of the children, while hinting at her much greater understanding of the supernatural happenings at the house.
For its almost two hour long running time, "The Others" will have you transfixed with its well-told, beautifully-shot, and elegantly-acted tale of the supernatural. This is a good old-fashioned haunted house film, the type of horror movie that Hollywood never seems to make enough of. If 1999's "The Sixth Sense" whetted your appetite for another great ghost story with a terrific twist ending, then "The Others" is a smart choice for a second course.