In the classic mold of haunted house movies, The Others features an old mansion full of shadowy rooms and long, dark corridors. But perhaps the most murky, labyrinthine thing about the film is the network of relationships implied in its credits list. The movie was written and directed by a Chilean-born Spaniard, Alejandro Amenábar, age 29, and was shot in Spain, though set in England. Its executive producers include Harvey and Bob Weinstein (of Miramax Films, whose genre-oriented Dimension division produced The Others) and Tom Cruise. Cruise not only, until this week, was married to the movie's star, Nicole Kidman, but is starring in and producing Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, a Hollywood remake of Amenábar's last, Spanish-language film, Open Your Eyes.
Got all that? Well, I don't either, but there's no small fascination in what's suggested by such a showbiz spider's web, which links far-off Madrid with the New York-based "mini-major" Miramax and Hollywood powerhouses like Cruise, Kidman and Crowe. Here's my best guess as to how it evolved. Amenbar's Open Your Eyes made a smallish but respectable splash on the international art-house circuit, and was picked up by Cruise and Crowe for a remake. The Weinsteins, always on the lookout for young, commercially promising talent from abroad, no doubt asked the Spaniard what else he had to offer, and were told about The Others. Most likely Kidman got to see the script because of her connection to Cruise, and her interest in the lead role, together with hubby's willingness to come aboard as a producer, persuaded the Weinsteins to back it.
This is called deal making, and it's normally not pertinent to movie reviewing. But I submit that it is here, because it's about the only factor that explains what's truly odd about The Others. No, I don't mean the spooky events and creepy characters it contains. I mean the fact that it doesn't seem like a movie that anyone would dare, or bother, to make in the early years of the 21st century.
In many respects, it's almost too old-school and quaint for today's tastes. You look at it and can't help but be wonderstruck by the thought that it could have been made in 1945, 1955 or 1965--any later date seems increasingly improbable. The notable precedents it recalls include Hitchcock's Rebecca, Robert Wise's The Haunting and, especially, The Innocents, Jack Clayton's superbly chilling adaptation of Henry James' Turn of the Screw.
The films just mentioned happen to be three of my favorite movies dealing with the supernatural or the unknown, and they're ones I frequently had occasion to cite, prior to the arrival of The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project, in lamenting the post-Halloween decline of horror movies into a dreary gulch populated exclusively by knife-wielding, bug-eyed maniacs and horny teenagers. So The Others would seem to be ideally suited to my tastes in spookfests. And as a type, no doubt it is. But as an example of that type, alas, it doesn't pass muster.
To explain why involves noting that all genres have built-in rules that filmmakers ignore, or fail to understand, at their peril. In the haunted house genre, perhaps the first rule is that the film must start out focused on characters who belong to what I call daylight reality. The job of these movies, after all, is to transport us into crepuscular or noctural realities, weird parallel worlds where things go bump in the collective unconscious and any dark thing seems possible. But such journeys into the Stygian realms of the half-believable only work if they're grounded in the world we know, among people we can identify with.
Usually, these films move us from sunlight to shadow in the company of a protagonist whose melting resistance to the uncanny mirrors our own. In Rebecca, a young bride takes up residence in the looming manse of her taciturn, older husband. In The Innocents, a governess accepts a job caring for two children in a manor house that's almost too idyllic. Even Kubrick's The Shining, a latter-day, ornately self-conscious version of the haunted house film, starts out in bright sunlight, centered on the petty squabbling and irritations of an all-too-believable nuclear family.
The Others, by contrast, strangely lacks this real-world anchoring. Both literally and figuratively, it begins after the fog has rolled in. The setting is Jersey, one of the British Channel Islands, in 1945 just after the end of World War II. As the film opens, Grace (Kidman) lies in bed screaming her lungs out, seemingly in the grip of some unfathomable horror. Why is she so distraught? The movie doesn't immediately tell us, but it soon gives us enough clues to allow us to guess.
Her husband has been away fighting in the war for years, leaving her to care for their old, remote mansion and their two young children, Anne (Alkina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). Grace, it seems, has been bowing under the strain of her responsibilities for some time. An old-line Catholic, she subjects her kids to long hours of Bible study and stern lessons on topics like hell, purgatory and the eternal torment of children who die in sin. To make matters worse, it seems that her small crew of servants has recently fled.
Help, of a sort, arrives promptly. At Grace's front door one day appear a trio of rustics seeking employment: a sturdy older woman named Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), a plainspoken elderly gardener, Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and a dark-haired mute girl, Lydia (Elaine Cassidy). The three seem eager for work and Grace takes them on instantly, then explains the peculiar rules that govern her household. Doors must be kept locked at all times. When a person passes from one room to the next, the door between them must be locked immediately. Likewise, the windows are usually kept shrouded in heavy curtains. The reason for these measures, Grace explains, is that her children are afflicted with an extreme form of photo-sensitivity. Serious exposure to sunlight could kill them.
The sun, though, is mostly hypothetical in The Others. Whenever we glimpse the outdoors, it seems that clouds have just descended, and the one time that a character attempts to leave the estate to visit the town that's supposedly nearby, a dense fog rolls in and prevents the escape.
The place, then, is full-tilt spooky. In fact, Grace herself is pretty creepy, a high-strung control freak who seems constantly teetering on the edge of hysteria. And if that's not enough, creepy things start to happen. First, Grace realizes she never mailed the newspaper ad that she wrote looking for servants. So how did these three happen to show up? Mrs. Mills, a brisk and slightly officious woman, explains that they simply knocked at the door on the chance that there might be work at the house. It sounds half-convincing, and we never are very sure about this odd trio from then on.
Things get weirder still when Grace's little daughter says that there are other people in the house, including a little boy named Victor with whom she regularly talks. The girl's own brother is scared silly by these declarations. Is there really a kid named Victor in his room? Poor Nicholas thinks he hears the boy's voice talking with Anne, but he can't bring himself to open his eyes and find out for sure.
When Grace is showing the new servants the house early in the story, she points out a piano that she says must never be played. That's the kind of movie The Others is. Of course there's a piano that mustn't be touched, and of course it starts tinkling out the tunes late at night, in a room that is supposed to be empty. Likewise, there are the mysterious servants, and the people that no one but a child can see. Soon enough, there's a macabre photo album of dead people, and a set of gravestones that are hidden on the grounds, and the untimely reappearance of Grace's war-shocked husband (Christopher Eccleston), and so on and so forth.
Granted, all this may sound like exactly the right elements for a great, neoclassic haunted house film, and that is obviously what was intended. But the audience I saw The Others with didn't seem very engaged or spooked by it, or particularly scared except in a few moments when a loud noise or sudden camera movement caught us by surprise. That wan impact indicates, I think, that the film lacks precisely the ingredient mentioned above. If a grounding in daylight reality gives the audience an orientation that distinguishes the real world from its doppelganger, it also provides the film with a persuasive psychological dimension, a sense that these terrors belong to a recognizable, believably human mind.
Amenábar's story keeps the little weirdnesses piling up. Likewise, his camera scurries expertly around the forbidding manse, finding some new disorienting angle or creepy surprise around every corner. But all this busyness quickly comes to seem mechanical, as well as a signal that he's overcompensating in trying to make up for what The Others really needs--main characters that feel solid rather than spectral.
I won't give away the movie's ending, or even say which other recent film it rather shamefully resembles once the plot's contrivances are explained. Suffice it to note that the conclusion, while clever, reveals the film as too clever for its own good. But of course, maybe its main purpose wasn't to scare us out of our seats, but to get young Señor Amenábar to Hollywood. In that, it may well have succeeded.