When the Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar made The Others, his first English-language film, 20 years ago, American horror films were in a state of limbo. The wave of neo-slashers sparked by Wes Craven’s Scream had already run its course and it would still be a couple of years before other trends took hold, like the run of Japanese horror remakes like The Ring or the extreme cinema of Saw and Hostel, which seemed to reflect the darkening post-9/11 reality that other mainstream films were studiously avoiding. There was no better timing for an old-fashioned haunted house movie, which had always thrived in a state of limbo, where the living and the dead share the same space – and the audience can’t always tell which is which.
In truth, The Others seems like a direct reaction to two films from 1999: The Sixth Sense, M Night Shyamalan’s unusually hushed and twisty breakthrough about a child who sees dead people, and The Haunting, a truly revolting attempt to give a classic psychological thriller the blockbuster treatment. Amenábar’s answer was to issue a corrective to The Haunting remake by returning to the suggestive fundamentals of the 1963 version while replicating the nested surprises of Shyamalan’s film, along with the dynamic of a stressed-out single mother and children who commune with the dead. He could be accused of shameless commercial calculation were it not for the fact that throwback films like The Others weren’t getting made at all.
Amenábar’s other primary source here is 1961’s The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, about a governess at a large estate who watches over two children she comes to believes are possessed. Nicole Kidman’s impeccably sculpted hairstyle alone seems like a nod to Deborah Kerr’s in the earlier film, though Amenábar has neutered the sexual undercurrents that gave The Innocents an extra charge. In fact, the one big problem with The Others, an otherwise alluring piece of horror craftsmanship, is that it never seems more substantial than mere mimicry, like a magician’s apprentice showing off all the master’s old tricks.
The tricks are still dazzling, though, starting with the fog-choked setting of an estate on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, but nonetheless conspicuous in its isolation. Even though the year is 1945 and the second world war has ended, there’s an eerie feeling that protection from a conflict that ravaged Britain and France has also meant a severing of ties from humanity itself. As the film opens, Grace (Kidman) has not heard any news about her husband Charles, who hasn’t returned from the war, and her anxiety bears down on her children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), who both seem a little afraid of her. When a trio of servants appears unexpectedly to help manage the estate and nanny the kids, Grace tells their leader, Mrs Mills (Fionnula Flanagan) that they lost electricity during the war and never bothered to restore it. The children have a light sensitivity, so lanterns suit them well.
They suit Amenábar well, too, as part of his scheme to engineer a state of permanent dusk or night-time on the estate, no matter the actual time of day. Sunlight doesn’t seem to penetrate Jersey anyway, but Grace is emphatic that all the curtains remain drawn over the windows and, for extra protection, that all 50 doors in the house stay closed and locked through a jangling set of 15 keys. Despite these precautions, Anne and Nicholas are complaining about “intruders”, including a spooky little boy named Victor, and the new house staff seems awfully suspicious. For one thing, they’ve responded to a newspaper posting that hasn’t even been mailed yet.
From a plotting standpoint, Amenábar’s greatest triumph is making the twist so obvious for the audience that they probably won’t see the actual twist coming in the final moments. Amenábar’s facility with multi-layered realities was evident in his previous Spanish-language film, Open Your Eyes (Abre los Ojos), which Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise had Americanized as Vanilla Sky for later the same year. But it’s the simplicity of The Others that remains its greatest asset: with this funereal atmosphere in place, Amenábar can uncork such haunted house favorites as creaking floorboards, slowly opened doors, lamp-lit shadow play and the echoing moans of the undead.
Though The Others might be compared to the historical horror of Guillermo del Toro films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, which are both set around the Spanish civil war, Amenábar doesn’t labor that hard to connect the shocks in the foreground with the real horrors of the second world war. Even when the fate of Grace’s husband is finally revealed, the trauma that might come with it is nothing compared to the immediate circumstances that have his wife and kids completely freaked out. Grace has discovered a portrait book filled with grim tableaux of dead people, and her daughter has been briefly possessed by the face of a desiccated old woman. They’ve got enough on their plate.
The true legacy of The Others is confirmation that the old ways still work. There are only a couple of outright heart-stopping shocks in the film, but Amenábar has the patience and confidence to know that he can parse them out stingily so long as he can sustain the mood. For as much as the Scream cycle had rewarded the self-awareness of a horror audience, The Others proved that the same ploys that scared people 40 years earlier could still work on them now. We’ll always be afraid of the unknown. We’ll always be afraid of the dark. In the right hands, our minds are a house that is easily and eternally haunted.