Friday, December 16, 2011

REVIEW: The Others (2001)

There are SPOILERS in this review!

Horror movies are hard to do right; I will admit this as freely as anyone, and I am a huge fan of the genre. What it comes down to is that horror is a genre that works on a very different level than most other genres, and emphasizes very different aspects of filmmaking – like how you can make an effective horror movie with barely any money. Horror doesn’t need money; it needs atmosphere, creativity and heart to do right! But sometimes there does come along a rare big budget Hollywood horror movie that simply smokes everything out there…such is the case with The Others, which is a veritable masterwork of horror craft and style.

Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Finnuola Finnegan, Alakina Mann, James Bentley

This movie is just awesome. It’s completely accessible and friendly to viewers of more mainstream films, and yet it doesn’t pull any punches and is always elegant, well-written and classy. That’s not to say that the scares aren’t there – they are. The scares are perhaps some of the best I have seen in any post-2000 horror film, as The Others uses a very subtle, understated style that leaves most of the horror to your imagination. And the subtle build of tension eventually leads to a much better payoff when the big, supernatural scares start rolling toward the end.

It’s kind of like Hemingway’s iceberg theory – you only see the tip of the iceberg, where the rest is hidden below the surface. One scene very early on that floored me is when the two kids, Anne and Nicholas (Alakina Mann and James Bentley), are sleeping in their room, and he hears her talking to a “ghost,” who talks back in a different voice, but you don’t really see anything but the back of her head from his perspective. So is she talking to a ghost, or is she really just doing voices, like he initially thinks? And when the “ghost” touches him…? That is brilliant, brilliant scare tactics right there, and it was at about that point that I realized I was dealing with something more than a garden variety horror film. The build-up to the movie, full of scenes where Nicole Kidman’s character hears things going bump in her big, spacious house, is rife with these kinds of techniques, these manipulations of the viewer, and it really shows a great mind at work here with the directing. Director Alejandro Amenábar hasn’t directed many other films, which is a shame.

Nicole Kidman in The Others, traversing amidst her dark abode...

The characters are all really good, too, even when you think they’re going to be really stock clichés. Nicole Kidman is Grace, a domineering but caring mother of two children who are photosensitive, and can’t be exposed to the sun for too long. They live in a big old country mansion in the 40s after World War II, and the story begins just as they hire Bertha Mills (Fionnula Finnegan) and her traveling companions as help around the house.

Kidman really does a great job at capturing Grace’s tight, strict demeanor and devotion to the Lord, which pretty much frame her entire character. She is quite vividly colored and I actually found myself totally drawn into the performance, believing every inch of it. The kids, same thing, they are excellent. Bertha Mills is one of the better characters, and Fionnula Finnegan really makes you question her motives at every turn – you know there’s something up with her, but what is it? Or are you just being paranoid? Her companions are a young mute girl and an elderly man, neither of whom have many lines, but both end up as sufficiently creepy and suspicious anyway.

Having the kids be photosensitive is an interesting twist and really made for some cool, inventive visual touchstones – like how Grace has to close all the windows and doors to make sure the sun doesn’t creep in accidentally. One scene in the beginning shows this quite well – after telling Anne to leave the room to study by herself, Grace has to first tell Bertha to close the windows in the adjoining room to keep her daughter safe. This plot point wasn’t entirely necessary to move the story forward, but the fact that it is there adds another layer of complexity and weight to the plot, upping the ante on the danger present in a very peculiar and unique way. The fog constantly surrounding the house is great, too, always looking ominous and ghostly, setting the stage with a real atmosphere.

The film closes with two plot twists, one right after the other. First we find out that Bertha and her companions have been dead the whole time, accompanied by some beautiful, haunting shots of the country house at night in the fog. The shot of the three of them walking slowly toward the kids is bone-chilling.

Haunting!

The final twist is perhaps not completely unexpected, but it is pulled off with gusto and drama – that the entire family, Grace and the kids and all, have been dead since the beginning of the film. Shock and awe! In reality, the ‘ghosts’ they’ve been hearing the whole time have been living people trying to move into the house. It is a rather humorous and witty take on the genre, as everything the main characters have been doing throughout the film would have been the ‘ghostly’ activity inflicted upon the characters in any other movie. Those curtains opening randomly? The rustling and bumping in the night? Quite eerie to think about, really…and quite a great deconstruction of the ghost story. The Sixth Sense has nothing on this.

Really this is a movie about death and our perceptions of our own lives. Nobody can really talk about ghosts with any kind of certainty, but The Others does a fine job of commenting on the ways we view ourselves and how little it sometimes means when the outside world sees us so much differently. The realization of death is bitter and painful, but inevitable too. There’s something to be said for Grace’s final speech, which amounts to her own character weaknesses and strengths all at once – very good writing. She has to face the reality that God did not give her a second chance to be a good mother, and that she’s been lingering on Earth as a ghost, and really, what does it all mean?

It is not a happy tale, and the implications are all quite macabre as to what actually transpired, as opposed to the movie’s unreliable narration, but the film is powerful and haunting all the same. I also like that it’s so accessible and cleaned up. Rather than coming off as cheap and phoned in just to make a quick buck, it feels like time and effort went into making it – a calculated, precise work that shows its effort off like a badge. This is a very mainstream take on the horror genre, and for once it actually works like a gem, as The Others is just magnificent. Scary, artful, meaningful and gripping, this is a bonafide classic of the genre.

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