The Others

In the two decades since Halloween, the horror genre has mutilated itself right along with its half-naked teenagers, first with the rise of slasher films in the '80s, and recently with a franchised flurry of deconstruction (Scream), reconstruction (I Know What You Did Last Summer), and inane self-parody (Scary Movie). With a few key exceptions, most notably The Blair Witch Project, the chilling power of suggestion and the unknown has given way to juvenile scare tactics and gore, and cheap ironies have created an audience too knowing for its own good. As if produced by the benevolent ghost of Val Lewton, Alejandro Amenábar's The Others harks back to a tradition of low-budget, classically constructed horror films that lived in the shadows and left their scariest effects to the viewer's imagination. This simple, spare, and exhilaratingly old-fashioned haunted-house movie builds tension through a steady accumulation of mundane disturbances—faint sounds, open curtains, unlocked doors—which chip away at the psyche, onscreen and off. Amenábar's exemplary sense of economy and space begins with the setting, a cavernous Victorian mansion on the Isle of Jersey in the final days of WWII. Penned in by a thick shroud of fog, Nicole Kidman has been raising and schooling her two children, preteen daughter Alakina Mann and young son James Bentley, while her husband fights in the war. When three new servants (Fionnula Flanagan, Eric Sykes, and Elaine Cassidy) arrive to replace the ones that mysteriously disappeared a week earlier, the house is shaken by a series of supernatural occurrences. Despite her daughter's insistence that she's seen and communicated with "the intruders," Kidman, a devout Christian and fiercely protective mother, refuses to believe in ghosts. Amenábar adds a crucial wrinkle to the story by making the children extremely photosensitive, so precautions must be taken to shield them from sunlight; curtains must be kept closed, and every unoccupied room in the house is locked. Like the original The Haunting and especially The Innocents, which it resembles right down to Kidman's hairstyle, The Others confines its characters to a single, well-defined place and only gradually reveals its cards. Every effect is carefully calibrated to tease out questions without offering an immediate answer, which lends menace to the darkness behind the doors and outside the range of the oil lamps. Drawing on primal, even Biblical, feelings about the pursuit and protection of knowledge, The Others comes out in a climate where more is more, but gains its power from less.

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