Ghost stories are probably the oldest tales in the world. The first homo sapiens with the capacity for speech probably spooked his fellow hunter-gatherers around the campfire at night with yarns about spirits in the wind making the leaves rustle. The Egyptian Book of the Dead is full of ghost stories; so is the Bible. Shakespeare wrote ghost stories; so did Dickens and Conan Doyle. And now we’ve had a century of cinema. Search for “ghost” in the plots listed at the IMDB, and you get more than 400 hits. You’d think by this point, there wouldn’t be a new ghost story to tell — I thought so, anyway. But Alejandro Amenábar found a new one.
This young Spanish screenwriter/director knows his ghost stories. He sets us up right as The Others opens, letting us know that he has studied the art of scare tactics. On Jersey in the Channel Islands, in 1945, there sits a spooky, mist-shrouded manor — the fog never lifts, and you half expect some old coot to warn you ominously, “Dinna go on the moors!” How cliché is it? The servants have run off in a fright, leaving Grace (Nicole Kidman, who, between this subtly steely performance and her terrific turn in Moulin Rouge, is shaping up into a genuine movie star this year) and her young children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley) all alone in the rambling house.
But this is Amenábar playing with us. If this is what most people imagine a haunted house to look like, if this is how many would describe the boundary where the world of the living meets the world of the dead… well, good. If we were to move right in and set up house in our own personal hell on earth, this would be it, right? Why would we do that? Because we love to torture ourselves, don’t we, with memories of better days? Is that why people in movies don’t just move out of those haunted houses?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
New locals show up at the house, hoping for employment, and Grace hires them on the spot: Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), as housekeeper, cook, and nursemaid to the children; Lydia (Elaine Cassidy), as a maid; and Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes), as the gardener. Will the three newcomers be scared off, too? Grace, it must be said, for all her elegance, is a little… odd — she has some unusual housekeeping habits that seem more obsessive-compulsive than anything else, at least initially. The children hint at something bad that happened, but they won’t talk about what Mommy did. On top of it all, Anne insists she is seeing a ghost boy she calls Victor.
Then again, maybe the new help will thoroughly creep Grace out. Mrs. Mills, with her kindly granny eyes and gentle granny voice, accepts Anne’s tale of spirits far too casually for Grace’s strict Christian tastes. And Grace, for all that she puts the fear of God and hellfire into her children with her frankly terrifying Bible stories, has no patience for the fear Anne’s ghost story instills in Nicholas, or Mrs. Mills’s encouraging of it. Still, it’s ghosts that keep Grace here: happy memories of the time before her husband went off to war and never returned, of the time when keeping up with the special needs of her children wasn’t such a burden…
I can’t say more. The creepy joy of this film is in the capacity it has for astounding even the most jaded movie lover (like me), the one who’s seen it all and can’t even imagine not being able to figure out where yet another ghost story is going. This is classy gothic horror, old-fashioned in the best way: there are no CGI specters, just mysterious footsteps and distant cries and movement in the shadows and hushed whispers and slamming doors. Amenábar messes with your head in ways beyond making you supply your own frights, too — much of the surprise really is all in your head: offhand thoughts that cross your mind early in the film, explanations for certain ookiness, will be forgotten once “logical” rationalizations appear, only to come back and bite you later.
The only thing keeping The Others from being an utterly perfect film is that it isn’t in black-and-white. Amenábar cleverly makes sunlight as terrifying as darkness, so that there’s no reprieve from the tension… and I’m sorry that I can only imagine how much more effective a motif that would have been if the film were broken down even more starkly into light and dark. Still, it’s effective enough as it is. The lingering unease it leaves you with will haunt you for days.