Although it's not always the case, the pursuit of the Holy Grail of filmmaking - helming a major Hollywood production - is often fraught with as many pitfalls and curses as an Indiana Jones expedition. Not only are expectations higher - due to the increased exposure and the millions of dollars involved in producing and marketing such films - but an auteur's control and thus vision of his or her work is also nearly always compromised if not severely lessened when first stepping up to bat in the big league.
That's particularly true for small-scale or foreign directors who either come to the States or helm a Hollywood-backed studio picture elsewhere and then discover too late that there are too many proverbial cooks in the kitchen. From producer pressure to star demands and test audience input, all sorts of things often reduce the director's ability to make his or her film the way he or she knows it needs to be done.
That was my worry with writer/director Alejandro Amenábar who created the terrific "Open Your Eyes" ("Abre Los Ojos"), a film that impressed enough people that it's being remade as "Vanilla Sky" by Cameron "Almost Famous" Crowe with Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz in the cast.
Hearing that he'd be helming a horror film backed by Dimension Films and its prolific producers, Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein - and starring Nicole Kidman, all I could imagine was some overblown Hollywood movie filled with impressive-looking, but ultimately ineffective special effects and a lavish production sense that would substitute for story and/or atmosphere (as was the case in "The Haunting").
Thankfully, my suspicions and predictions were incorrect as Amenábar's latest film, "The Others," is a truly spine-tingling ghost picture that ranks up there with "The Sixth Sense" in both spooky/scary material and a fabulous, twisting screenplay. Much like "TSS," the film deals with some pesky ghosts who have an ulterior motive for those they haunt and features a knock your socks off ending.
Of course, "TSS," pretty much ruined the chances of any subsequent ghost film from really knocking viewers from their stockings. That's because of its surprise ending that left viewers all the more suspicious and/or savvy about noticing and examining the various clues laid down before them in such pictures. Fortunately, that doesn't ruin this film's surprise, but it does somewhat diminish the shock value of completely catching viewers off guard.
Like any good storyteller, Amenábar lets the viewer's imagination do most of the work. By setting up the various scenes and then causing the viewer to imagine the worst (or best, if you love to be spooked or scared), the director creates the near perfect pitch and aura to make this tale work.
The setup is brilliant. Three strangers suddenly appear to look after an isolated and Gothic-looking home where a single mother cares for her young children. She's overly protective of them due to their chronic and potentially life-threatening sensitivity to bright light, thus necessitating that the house near always remain dimly lit and that no door of any room be opened until any other one is closed and locked.
Then the daughter starts talking of people being in the house, the mother hears unexplained noises, and all sorts of items are manipulated by outside and apparently supernatural forces. To top it off, the mother is acting a bit bizarre, there's no phone or electricity, and the kids haven't been told that their father was killed in WWII.
While that would make one imagine that most of the scary stuff would take place in those closed, dark rooms - with the mother initially appearing desirous of either wanting to keep something in or something else out -- Amenábar (whose first film was "Tesis") and his cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe ("Secrets of the Heart," "Masterpiece") put the twist on that by delivering some of the more chilling and frightening moments in brightly lit environs. Don't worry, however, as plenty of traditional "what goes bump in the night" moments are present as well.
The film's one drawback and problem is that certain behavior and developments that occur more than halfway through the proceedings temporarily feel incongruous with the carefully calculated material that's led up to that point. When viewed in hindsight, everything makes perfect sense. Yet, it's one of those cases where certain characters suddenly seem evil and/or conspiracy minded, resulting in things feeling a bit sudden and forced, thus breaking the spell - if you will - that had been perfectly maintained until then.
Other elements and hints/clues feel more congruous with the proceedings, although this is one of those films that requires a second viewing just to see if everything makes perfect sense and was constructed properly.
The performances are top-notch, with Nicole Kidman ("Moulin Rouge," "Dead Calm") delivering a terrific take as the overly protective mother who doesn't know what's occurring in her home. While it's the sort of role that could have been reduced to screaming and over histrionics, Kidman brings a great deal of depth to the character that makes the viewer sympathize with her plight. The terror displayed in her facial expression is incredibly salient and that's what sells much of the performance and the film.
Alakina Mann and James Bentley (both making their feature film debuts) are both quite good as her children, with the former perfectly playing the scaredy-cat character who's terrorized by his headstrong and often obstinate older sister embodied by the former.
As the creepy trio who arrive on the scene, Fionnula Flanagan ("With or Without You," "Waking Ned Devine") gets the meatiest role as the housekeeper who seems to know more about what's occurring than she reveals. Eric Sykes ("Splitting Heirs," "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines") and Elaine Cassidy ("Disco Pigs," "Felicia's Journey") aren't afforded the opportunity to do too much as the old gardener and the mute nanny respectively, but they do add to the overall creepy atmosphere that pervades the film.
A spooky and often rather scary ghost picture that gets under your skin and is delightfully likely to mislead viewers in their quest to figure out the reasons behind what's occurring, this is the sort of old-fashioned, but highly effective horror/suspense picture that puts any and all "slasher" films to shame in both eliciting the goosebumps and delivering the scares in an intelligent fashion.
While the ending might be disturbing to some viewers, for others it will blow them away. It certainly works in hindsight and does explain everything that leads up to it, a point that only further demonstrates what a well-made movie it really is. "The Others" rates as an 8 out of 10.