There are movies that, intentionally or not, slip by you. There’s just too many. You’re too busy. Others demand repeated viewings. You don’t particularly love the lead actor. Parts of all of these explain my tardiness in seeing The Others (2001), a “horror” film that should go down as a contemporary classic in the vein of The Innocents or The Haunting.
The plot of The Others is so hard to summarize without giving away it’s essential punch line. On the other hand, even if you know the film’s basic premise, it’s still loads of fun to watch. So this entire post is just one big spoiler. Let me say now, if you haven’t seen The Others, go watch it ASAP.
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Stewart, the mother of two young children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley) who live in a fog-enshrouded mansion in Jersey on the Channel Islands in 1945. As the film opens, three mysterious housekeepers, Mrs. Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Mr. Edmund Tuttle (Eric Sykes), and Lydia (Elaine Cassidy), arrive seeking work. Grace believes they have answered an ad she placed in the newspaper. A few scenes later, she learns that, in fact, the ad never posted and that the three employees worked in the house some years before Grace’s family moved in.
Grace and her children are eagerly awaiting their father’s return from the war. Grace has stood firm, even guarding (?) the house from Nazis who would have once commandeered the estates. In the meantime, Grace and her children hear weird noises throughout the house. Anne, in fact, claims that she sees a young boy, Victor, roaming around the house with his family and a spooky old lady. We’re never quite sure what to think as the film progresses, especially since Grace seems to be a deeply disturbed mother who goes to great lengths to “protect” her children. In an odd bit of instruction to her new housekeeper, she tells Mrs. Bertha that no door in the house can be opened without first closing another. On top of that, all the curtains in the house must remain closed because her children have an extreme allergy to sunlight.
As the film progresses, Grace and her children confront, run from, and debate the existence of intruders in their house. Along the way, their husband and father, Charles (Christopher Eccleston), shows up, setting in motion a series of events that will reveal Grace and the children’s true identity…to both the audience and themselves. Rather than innocent victims of domestic ghostly possession, Grace, Anne, and Nicholas are (BIG SPOILER) actually ghosts themselves that haunt the house. Their intruders are nothing more than the family that hopes to move into the mansion.
Now while all of this might sound like an M. Night Shyamalan rip off, there are numerous elements that set The Others apart from its horror/thriller peers. The first is direction. In tandem with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (who has gone on to shoot part of the Twilight Saga), writer and director Alejandro Amenabar knows how to visually enhance his narrative. The camera not only dictates but frustrates action and audience perception. We’re never quite sure where we stand in terms of plot, or even visuals. As soon as we think we have firm visual footing, Aguirresarobe and Amenabar pull the rug out from under us. The Others benefits from strong performances all around, but most notably from Kidman, whose over-analyzed face lends another aspect to her performance. She recalls Deborah Kerr’s borderline insane performance in The Innocents. While the children in The Others aren’t as creepy as their predecessors in the Kerr film, they are effective, particularly Alakina Mann, who goes toe-to-toe with Kidman’s Grace in numerous scenes.
Like many horror/thriller films, religion plays a huge role in The Others, and it is a particularly schizophrenic one here, accounting for no less than four functions in the film narrative. First, it “orders” the world of the film. The film opens as Grace tells her children the story of creation. Throughout the course of the film, to put it broadly, Grace and her children are indeed trapped in something like an afterlife limbo…a purgatory…that echoes one of the lessons that the children must memorize in the course of their studies. Naive, ignorant, or simply in denial, Grace cannot and will not allow her children to consider the possibility of their troubled “existence.” Second, religion is a source of fear and control. Grace teaches her children to fear the four hells, the hell where the damned go, purgatory, the bosom of Abraham where the righteous go, and children’s limbo, which, according to Grace, is at the center of the earth and is very, very hot with pain forever. This fear is used to enforce appropriate “Victorian” behavior. Oddly enough, religion is, third, a source of comfort. When Nicholas is afraid, Grace tells him to squeeze his rosary tightly and to pray the “Our Father.” She repeatedly tells her children that the Lord will protect them in times of danger. Ironically, it is also this same Lord that will author their eternal damnation should they misbehave. Fourth, and less explicit, religion is also a source of frustration and confusion. Anne refuses to believe the “biblical” account of creation. When Mrs. Bertha tells her, “You shouldn’t believe everything that you read in books,” Anne responds, “That’s what our mother says. […] Then she expects us to believe everything in the Bible.” Anne tells her she doesn’t believe in the literal 6 day Creation or that Noah put all the animals in the ark or that the Holy Spirit is a Dove. When Grace realizes their ghostly state, her faith fails her, and her world crumbles around her. When Anne asks her, since they are dead, where is purgatory, Grace responds, “I don’t know. I’m no wiser than you are, but I do know that I love you. I’ve always loved you.” Grace can believe what she wants, but the reality of her experience ultimately throws all of her beliefs into confusion.
The twist of the film is handled effectively as well. I knew what I was getting into before watching the film, which actually, I think, made the film work better. You know that Amenabar is telling a ghost story from the ghosts’ perspective. So all of his edits, framing, and action sequences, events which would make a traditional horror film scary, just make this one creepy. There are hardly any jump-in-your-seat moments…if any. Aside from Kidman’s potential to overplay her hand, Amenabar trades over-the-top thrills for thought-provoking subtlety. There’s a bit of genius at work here, for example, in having Anne double as an explicitly Halloween-like ghost as she plays around in her first communion dress and veil. As Grace wrestles to keep all the doors shut and curtains closed, you just know that the “intruders” are freaking out over all these “supernatural” occurrences. Even the reveal is built around a bit of competent editing between the perspectives of the living vs. the dead.
The Others is a great example of atmospheric horror and a film that puts religion to a multitude of uses and frustrates traditional religious thought in the process. During the film, I found myself thinking about C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and the opening that he leaves for the reality of a purgatory as part of the hereafter. Like Grace, so many of us are trapped in denial or simply refuse to consider alternate possibilities for how things are or the way they will be, which might depend on new interpretations of texts taught to us as children. I imagine that lived denial can be so strong that, like Grace and her children, it accompanies us into the next world. Hopefully, there will be gentle housekeepers to guide us along the way and shed light on our situation.
The Others (101 mins.) is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and frightening moments and is available on DVD.