It was about two years ago that there was real hope for the horror movie coming once again due for a decent revival. The Blair Witch Project made people remember how to fear the unknown, and remakes of The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill promised a return to the good old days of creepy mansions. Sadly, Blair Witch spawned only a myriad of witless parodies and a nearly unrelated sequel, whereas The Haunting lost its way amidst a sea of digital beasties and a sappy Spielbergian ending. As for House on Haunted Hill ... let's just mention that they had to hand out instant-win prize tickets with admission to get anybody to show up.
It's good to see that there's some kind of life in the genre, but unfortunate that two strong entries have arrived on the landscape simultaneously. If you only see one, go to Brad Anderson's Session 9. There's still plenty of fun to be had, however, with The Others. For all the reinvention and updating that Anderson's film is doing, sometimes you just want large English country estates shrouded in fog, mysterious children singing songs, scary marionettes, period clothing, impeccable accents and all manner of unseen horrors that clatter around but disappear as soon as the protagonist actually enters the room. That's what The Others is about.
It's even fair to call The Others a roller-coaster ride, but we need to clarify that. This isn't your contemporary Six Flags, hurl folks into outer space until their brain shakes loose kind of roller coaster. It's more like the older wooden ones, the kind whose designers realized that the 50-foot drop will be more dramatic if you ascend at a leisurely pace. The film's pattern more or less proceeds as follows: Foreshadow spooky event. Make mysterious noise. Have character investigate. Quick shock. Fake-out. Repeat. Replace fake-out with genuine clue every once in a while so as not to lose audience.
The setting is, yes, a large house shrouded in fog on the island of Jersey (actually, the film was shot in Spain, but it doesn't look it). The year is 1945, and Grace (Nicole Kidman) lives alone in the big house with her two young children, their father having not yet returned from the war. As the film begins, she is hiring new servants to replace the last batch, who mysteriously disappeared a week before. After she has hired three apparent hard workers -- maternal Irishwomen Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), jovial aging Brit Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and Mrs. Mills' mute daughter, Lydia (Elaine Cassidy of Felicia's Journey) -- she discovers that the ad seeking workers she had meant to place in the paper was never sent in the mail. Mrs. Mills explains that they used to work at the house years ago and just happened to drop by, but it all seems a little convenient.
But wait, it gets better: The children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), are allergic to light (it makes them break out in sores and suffocate, apparently). Thus, in addition to an up-all-night, sleep-all-day lifestyle, they must have the curtains drawn at all times, and no door in the house may be opened without another being closed -- the darkness must be contained as if it were water on a ship, as Grace puts it. That's not all: There are no phones or radios in the house because noise gives Grace migraines, and there's no electricity because the war blackouts made it untenable.
The first hint that something is amiss is young Anne's fondness for telling stories about a mysterious playmate named Victor. Victor appears at first to be a possible put-on, like young Danny squealing "Redrum" in The Shining, but various bumping sounds, children's cries and Darth Vader-like breathing noises point to something external. Anne also draws pictures of a scary old woman she claims to have seen quite often. Grace writes these off as childhood fibs, but when the curtains start being opened during the daylight, thus threatening the children's lives, she hits the wall and starts packing heat (ancient heat, to be sure, in the form of a Yosemite Sam-style shotgun, but still lethal ... to the living).
It's best not to point out some obvious incongruities. For instance, if the house is haunted, why are the residents only finding out about it now? And why does Grace seem convinced of the supernatural menace, then get all pragmatic again, then believe again and so on? Roll with it, and you'll have a fine time getting goosed by all the classic haunted-house bits, expertly staged by director Alejandro Amenábar (whose Open Your Eyes is being remade as Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, with Nicole's ex-hubby Tom, who also executive-produced The Others). There's just enough mystery to keep the audience guessing, especially in scenes indicating that the servants know more than they let on.
However, when Grace's husband returns home, about midway through the film, it feels like a misstep. Actor Christopher Eccleston, looking as if his face was constructed from yellow latex by the Henson Creature Shop, is so devoid of energy that he drags the entire film down to his level for a while, giving us a pointless love scene when what we want is more ghosts. Thankfully, he isn't given a lot to do, and the spirits kick into high gear a little later.
The ending, unfortunately, doesn't quite satisfy (skip this paragraph to avoid even the vaguest hint, spoiler-hounds). In revealing all, it unearths a secret so sweeping in its implications that it doesn't seem possible that anything in the movie could have happened quite the way it did for internal logic to remain consistent. Just a tweak or two more would have helped a lot (forgive the vagueness of this discussion, but there's no other way without inviting some very justified hate mail). Like Jacob's Ladder, the ending needlessly jeopardizes a logical interpretation of the film, when it would have been so easy to rewrite it in a slightly more satisfying manner.
Still, if you like being scared, you should have fun. Bring a date to hold hands with.