So effective is writer-director Alejandro Amenábar's manipulation of the viewer's psyche that his English language debut -- a seriously goosepimply homage to old-school haunted house movies entitled "The Others" -- would be unshakably bone-chilling even if you blacked out everything on the screen except Nicole Kidman's porcelain face, her eyes frozen wide with fear.
The scariest parts of this movie -- which takes place in an creaky, empty estate house on the eerily foggy English Channel of Jersey just after World War II -- have no music, no special effects, no bleeding walls, rattling furniture, claps of thunder or flashes of lightning. The scariest parts of this movie consist, quite simply, of Kidman and her two children becoming frightened out of their wits by the very presence of unseen spirits that have come to occupy their home.
For all practical purposes, Grace (Kidman) is trapped in this house because her two children (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) are fatally allergic to sunlight, and she spends her days obsessed with their protection, closing heavy curtains and locking doors of any room they enter to prevent even a sliver of light from invading. Without a car or telephone since the occupying Nazis abandoned the island, the family would be helpless if not for the coincidental arrival of three new servants (the old staff recently vanished without explanation) who came round looking for work because they'd served at the house under a previous owner.
These servants seem to take it in stride when Grace's daughter claims to have seen a mysterious boy who deliberately throws open curtains and in one scene demands that the children get off his bed in a throaty, hair-raising off-screen voice. A devout Christian, Grace believes none of it and admonishes her children with dogmatic lectures about going to Hell for lying.
But it isn't long before she's finding doors unlocked immediately after locking them, hearing whispers in empty rooms and feeling a supernatural presence her religious convictions won't allow her to acknowledge. These incidents grow more frequent and more frightening until finally Grace comes face to face with what appears to be a macabre old woman occupying her daughter's body.
Kidman gives a powerfully disquieted performance that pulls you right into Grace's terrified soul. In her hands Grace's already habitual fear for her children's lives is overtaken by something so ominous and incomprehensible that she begins to lose her mind. Mann and Bentley are terrific as well, giving the cherubic, pale and shallow-eyed children distinct personalities (she's willful and mischievous, he's timid and tormented) that help make them so integral to the story.
Amenábar -- whose ingenious Spanish psychological thriller "Open Your Eyes" is being remade by Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise as "Vanilla Sky" (due in December) -- does a spectacular job of slowly building the perceptual tension to a piercing crescendo in "The Others." He has an amazing ability to create an atmosphere unsettling enough to rattle modern moviegoers by invoking sumptuously photographed horror movie conventions (cavernous candle-lit mansions, crawling mists, gravestones beside craggy dead trees) as old as the Hammer Studio B-pictures of the 1930.
Yet "The Others" almost unravels after the return of Grace's shell-shocked husband (Christopher Eccleston), who was thought to have been lost in the war. Because of the circumstances of his return, the audience gets so far ahead of the characters that much of the rest of the movie becomes a tedious wait for the other shoe to drop.
Part of the problem is that the uncanny servants, who clearly know more than they're willing to say, have all the menacing import of "Scooby-Doo" villains. It's hard to take them seriously when they squint portentously and say to each other lines like, "All in good time Mr. Tittle, all in good time!"
Amenábar explains away some of the picture's apparent artifice with a finale that really pulls the rug out from under you. It's a payoff worth waiting for, but it doesn't erase the fact that for the second half of the film Grace seem more than a little witless in steadfastly refusing to accept that her house is haunted.
This weighs down "The Others" enough to keep it from becoming the great psychological fright flick that's lurking about inside its machinations. But as a popcorn-muncher for the smart set -- a sophisticated return to haunted house seat-grippers in which it's what you don't see that scares you most -- it's exhilarating enough to warrant a recommendation.
Run time: 104 mins
In Theaters: Friday 10th August 2001
Box Office USA: $96.1M
Box Office Worldwide: $209.9M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Cruise/Wagner Productions, Las Producciones del Escorpión S.L., Sociedad General de Cine (SOGECINE) S.A., Dimension Films
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Fresh: 123 Rotten: 25
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Starring: Nicole Kidman as Grace Stewart, Christopher Eccleston as Charles Stewart, Alakina Mann as Anne Stewart, James Bentley as Nicholas Stewart, Eric Sykes as Mr. Edmund Tuttle, Elaine Cassidy as Lydia, Renée Asherson as Old Lady, Keith Allen as Mr. Marlish, Michelle Fairley as Mrs. Marlish, Alexander Vince as Victor Marlish, Gordon Reid as Assistant, Ricardo López as Second Assistant, Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs. Bertha Mills