On one of my favorite movie insider sites, both Wes Craven and Clive Barker posted their support for a new film from Dimension Films called The Others. Clive went so far as to say "The photography evokes an elegant world of dread that has not been created on screen since the days of the original version of The Haunting, or Rosemary's Baby."
Well, well, well... you know what? They were right!
From the movie trailers, my wife and I went to the film expecting a good old-fashioned haunted house story, with some great atmospherics, good effects, and some genuine creepiness. What was delivered, however, was a subtle thriller with deep supernatural underpinnings and, while not the jumps and chills one gets from, say, the remake of House on Haunted Hill, a slow, building sense of eerie that slowly moved me forward on my seat until, towards the very end of the film, I actually gasped and put my hand to my mouth as the truth of the film became apparent to me in a wonderful moment of epiphany. In other words, I liked it.
Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a mother of two children, whose husband has gone off to war (the film is set in 1945 in Europe), leaving her with two children afflicted with terminally photo-sensitive skin to take care of. As the movie opens, she greets a trio of replacement help who have come after all her servants disappeared quite suddenly, without notice or without collecting their wages. It is that sense of the "odd" that gives this film its character and drives the plot through the slower points when you're not really sure (at that point) why you're being show what you're being shown.
Ms. Kidman does a superb job as the mother who is trying to keep from unraveling in a darkened, foggy English manse. She is the only known commodity in the film, but it doesn't suffer a whit for the lack of other star-power. She fulfills the potential of every scene she is in, with character and strength, and makes an otherwise somewhat dull character much more interesting.
The other stand-out performance is Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs. Mills, the new housekeeper. Ms. Flanagan has a long filmography, stretching back to 1967, but most American audiences probably will not have seen her before. Her performance in this film is very reminiscent of Tyne Daly's "Maxine" from the television show Judging Amy. Mrs. Mills is the proto-typical wise woman, comforting the children and assuring the mistress of the house that all will be well. The strength one can see in her eyes is a hard strength, one that is sometimes masked by the soft, caring exterior, but when necessary, she can be stubborn and strict, which is usually when it's most appropriate.
The children are played by Alakina Mann (Anne) and James Bentley (Nicholas). Both have truly distinct personalities, and unlike most horror film children, who are pasty and ignorable, young Ms. Mann gives audiences a character they can feel sorry for, laugh at, hate and cheer for, all within the course of 113 minutes. Young Mr. Bentley does admirably well, but his character is somewhat overshadowed, both in writing and in performance, by his slightly older co-star.
Rounding out the cast of notables is Eric Sykes, who plays Mrs. Mills' compatriot, Mr. Tuttle. His cheerful fuddy-duddy character is usually the one who diffuses some of the tense interpersonal moments between Grace and Mrs. Mills, and he comes off as the traditional unflappable, affable English country fellow.
There are only 12 people listed in the cast of this film, but you don't notice the lack of the thousand extras seen in other summer films this year. The small cast helps to enhance the feeling of isolation that is one of the key elements that makes this movie effective in its creepiness. Director Alejandro Amenábar does a masterful job of using the camera both in the traditional suspense/horror way and in a distinct and unique... eerie way. I hate to keep using that word as much as I have, but it's the only word that fits the feel of the film. Wes Craven said this film gave him "set envy", and it's easy to see why. The location was perfect (whoever the location scout for that film was should get a nice bonus) and the interior sets blended in seamlessly with the feel of the exterior shots.
Overall, I give this film an A-. The only thing it loses points on is the slowness of the pacing early on in the film, which drags it down and kills any elements of suspense that might have already built with the audience. But, if you have the slightest bit of patience, I highly recommend this film. It's ending is worthy of a Shyamalan script, and just as effective.