Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others holds the singular distinction of being the only film I’ve ever seen that caused a fellow audience member to throw a bucket of popcorn into the air in terror. The Others only has two or three big scares—the popcorn-tossing came about halfway through, when Nicole Kidman’s Grace falls to the ground after a door slams into her face—and each of its scream-inducing moments involves an unexpected physical jolt. In a film that’s all about mood, mystery, and the unseen—the ghosts who may or may not be lurking just around the corner or hidden somewhere in the darkness—it’s the abrupt intrusion of physical menace that really terrifies.
Set just after the end of World War II in a musty old house on Jersey Island, The Others is essentially a haunted house tale. Grace (Nicole Kidman) shares her magnificent, eerily empty home with her two photosensitive children (Alakina Mann and James Bentley), as well as three spooky servants (Fionnula Flanagan, Eric Sykes, and Elaine Cassidy), who arrive shortly after their predecessors mysteriously vanish. The children’s photosensitivity is so acute that no sunlight is ever permitted in the house; the servants share secrets and make knowing, obtuse references to their past in the home; strange sounds, unexplained disturbances, and the children’s reports of ghostly apparitions have Grace worried that her home is haunted, even though the suspicion flies in the face of her deeply-felt religious faith. Sets, mise-en-scène, lighting, and editing conspire to create some moody atmospherics, but we never quite know what’s actually going on or whom to believe: Are the children lying to get attention? Are the servants malevolent, or just misunderstood? Is Grace the only sensible person in the narrative or the one person too stubborn to admit the obvious truth that something supernatural is going on?
The Others directly recalls and inverts Jack Clayton’s masterful Deborah Kerr vehicle The Innocents. Like that film, it relies almost entirely on cinematic form—shot composition, sound, and lighting—to evoke fear, and hinges on a remarkably effective, histrionic star turn from its female lead, as well as formidable supporting performances, particularly by the children. A permanently darkened old house, things bumping and clattering in empty rooms, and a woman pushed to the point of insanity: it’s perfectly formulaic and old-fashioned in the best possible way. The big third-act twist, when it comes, serves only to reconfirm the movie’s commitment to narrative coherence: it doesn’t so much upend the story as complete it, making sense of the disparate pieces while giving the film a hefty emotional punch. After the movie’s mystery is resolved, we’re left with a simple tale, well told, an unnerving portrait of a family dealing with loss and shut off from the outside world. You could call it sturdy; you might also call it classical—a horror film as elegant and sad as it is frightening.