Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Others (2001)

Title: The Others (2001)

Writer/Director: Alejandro Amenabar

Cast: Nicole Kidman


Famed movie reviewer Roger Ebert said that with The Others, director Alejandro Amenabar was “a little too confident that style can substitute for substance”. This is a comment that I completely disagree with because The Others is a film that is all about substance. It’s not just a great ghost story (which it is) it is a whole lot more than that. It has a depth, and a bravura that shines through in only the best of horror movies. Yes it is an extremely stylish and atmospheric film, but the film also has something more in mind than spooking you. And that’s exactly what I love about it, how it manages to both be relevant with its themes, and be a great ghost story at the same time.

Ebert’s take on the film is that it was boring. That it took its damn good time in building up suspense, but eventually took too long to deliver the thrills. Again, a comment I disagree with entirely. Not all haunted house movies have to be as flashy and special effects driven as say, the Poltergeist Trilogy. Some of the most effective ghost films are those that are subtle slow burners, taking their good time to crawl under your skin. Films like The Changeling (1980) and Ghost Story (1981) are this way. Their emphasis is on atmosphere, convincing performances and telling a spooky story. Not wowing you with visual effects.

And that is exactly the kind of film that The Others is. Alejandro Amenabar, the Spanish director behind such excellent films as Thesis (1996), The Sea Inside (2004) and Open Your Eyes (1997) orchestrates a film that is purposely quiet and filled with whispers. A film filled with darkness and shadows, a potent combination for a horror film. As Nichole Kidman’s character says at one point “we cherish our silence in this household” and to be honest I think that suits this film perfectly well. In a horror film, silence and shadows are an essential tool with which to spook your audience with because the imagination can fill the gap with something usually more terrible then what we actually see or hear. In its most tense moments, silence is king on this film, until an otherworldly thud or boom squeezes in, then you are scared and the movie has you by the throat! Characters speak in whispers, almost as if telling us a secret. This was Amenabar’s way of setting the dark fairytale mood the film has to it. The Others feels as if someone was reading us a ghost story in the middle of the night. The characters talk in low whispers, as if purposely begging us to pay closer attention to what they are saying. I love that about this movie. From its very first moments the film sets its mood by asking us in a whisper: “Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I’ll begin…”

Atmosphere reigns supreme on The Others!

But apart from these stylish choices, the film has a depth to it. And if you haven’t seen the movie, then maybe you wont want to read the following paragraphs, because I’m going to go in depth as to what the movie was about. What works great for The Others is the fact that the films themes fit perfectly within the context of a ghost story. You see, at its core, the film is is about beliefs. What do we believe will happen after we die? Do we turn into ghosts? Do we go to heaven or to hell? Or do we simply die and rot away? What exactly are we taught about these things when we are children? And are any of these teachings true? Should we believe what ever belief system is shoved down our throats when we are still children? The movie presents us with Grace (Nichole Kidman) a lonely mother who lives in this huge dark mansion with her two children who suffer from a skin decease called Xeroderma Pigmentosum, a decease that makes them sensitive to sunlight. The children need to live in darkness all the time, all the doors in the household must remain close and the curtains have to be close, to prevent the children from being harmed by the sunlight. While in that darkness and in the midst of the candlelight the mother teaches the kids about the bible, about faith, and about what they should believe in.

"So then this guy put all the animals in the world in one boat..."

That was a key sequence for me. The mother and her children, in the darkness, reading from the bible. I’ll get to the symbolisms on that one later. In one scene, The Mother who’s name is ‘Grace’ asks her children to imagine what she is teaching them, to imagine there is a big bearded guy up there in heaven watching over their every move. This is one of the many tools that religion requires of its parishioners: imagination. Since you cant visually confirm anything that they are telling you, they ask you to imagine all these fantastical things and make them true in your mind. Yet interestingly enough, the children in this film don’t believe everything they are taught. At one point they say “I don’t believe the holy ghost is a dove. Doves are anything but holy, they poo on the windows” They also say they don’t believe that Noah put all the animals in the world in one boat. Smart kids! I like how the film presents us with the idea of these two children using their reasoning skills to realize that some of these stories in the bible are simply too far fetched to be believed, too fantastic to be real. These kids represents the new generation, questioning the old beliefs, the old myths, the old beliefs. It’s almost as if they were saying “do you actually expect us to believe these things?”

The film compares Christian beliefs with darkness and ignorance. The children are being over protected by her religious mother, who is afraid to let them go out into the world, afraid that they might be exposed to the light. The light in this film represens illumination, enlightenment, exposure to the truth. In the film, Grace keeps her children deliberately in the dark because she believes that “the light will kill them!” The film presents us with the idea that some people believe exposing the real truth about belief systems on society can be a dangerous thing. The idea that if you were to suddenly tell Christians that Christianity is just one big giant fairy tale, that humanity wont be able to take it. That this might generate one big gigantic chaos in society. That the light might kill them, as the movie puts it.

The ultimate truth in the film is accepting that we die. The ghosts in the film don’t want to accept that they are dead. In one awesome scene the ghosts shout “we are not dead! We are not dead!” The ultimate illumination in our lives, the light that can be too harsh to look at, is accepting our own mortality. Maybe we don’t turn to ghosts when we die. Maybe there is no heaven and no hell, when we die, who knows what happens. Is the idea that we simply die too horrible to accept that we have to make up fairy tales to make us feel better? Can we not simply accept that we have to make the best of this life because this life is probably the only one we are going to get? Shall we live in the darkness of ignorance and misinformation, or shall we live in the light and illumination of truth, however harshly that light might shine at first? Won’t our consciousness adjust to the light of truth?

In the film, finally, the light shines, and the kids don’t die. Their bodies had recuperated from their decease and they took in the light and accepted the fact that they were dead. Mrs. Mills, the cleaning lady that moves in to assist Grace and her children, says to the children “your mother only believes in what she was taught. But don’t worry…sooner or later, she will see them (the humans). And everything will be alright”. On this scene the film is telling us how Grace is stuck in an old fashion way of thinking that doesn’t subscribe to the truth. A very symbolic visual queue is that Grace is living in a constant fog not knowing where she is or where she is going. In one scene she walks out of her house and gets lost in the myst. The myst symbolizing her confusion and her shortness of vision. She only sees things her way, and doesn’t see further then that, beyond the fog and into the light. Mrs. Mills tells the children: “You’ll see. There are going to be some big surprises. There are going to be…changes” I loved that line of dialog because I personally, I truly hope that societies dependency on religion will one day disappear. That one day we will live our lives knowing that we are the makers of our own destiny, that its up to us to make things right. That we have to make the most of this life, because when we die, that’s probably as far as we will go. Ultimately, I see why some people choose to believe in the bible and its ideas of the afterlife. After all, the idea of an afterlife is a comforting one. But is it the truth? How can we know it is?

Grace's light shines a little too dimly

The Others is the kind of horror film that speaks up against religion and uses the context of a ghost story to do it. It wants to tell its audience, open those curtains and let the light in! Illuminate your way of seeing things. Don’t be afraid to confront the truth! And I applaud it for that. It seems that director Alejandro Amenabar’s mission in life is to scream this to the world, his latest film Agora (2010) plays once again with the themes of religion vs. science. It presents us with a world where the new religion (Christianity) is rising up and going up against the old Greek Myths. A nation in clash over beliefs. This world is filled with many unanswerable questions. My take on it is that life is one gigantic mystery, and we have to accept that that’s what makes the whole thing interesting. Like one big mystery film, where we never really know the answer until the very end.

Amenabar discusses a scene with actress Fionnula Flanagan who pays Mrs. Mills 

So as you can see, Mr. Ebert was freaking wrong! The Others not only offers up an excellent ghost story with palpable atmosphere and mood, drenched in darkness and whispers, with things that go bump in the night, it also has something important to say. The way I see it, we all end up believing what makes us happy, and if believing in Jesus and heaven works for you, great! More power to you my friends. Just don’t judge ‘The Others’ that think differently. As long as we don’t hate or kill each other for thinking differently, there is room in this world for diversity of thought and evolution.

Rating: 5 out of 5
 The Others (2001) [Blu-ray]AgoraThesisThe Sea InsideOpen Your Eyes


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

A good film yes, but pales into significance when compared to 'The Innocents'. I also found 'The Orphanage' far more impressive. I kinda sympathise with Ebert's view on the film. This might be because I telegraphed the plot twist quite early. It's perfectly serviceable as a creepy ghost film for a dark rainy night, but there are certainly half a dozen films I'd prefer to put on over this.

Franco Macabro said...

I thought the same way, but recently took the time to re-watch it. A friend of mine came over and she suggested it. I suddenly realized I had not seen it in years so I said "sure". Found myself enjoying it so much!

What really draws me to it are its symbolisms and themes, so powerful. At the same time, its a great ghost story. That scene where Grace says "were not dead!" and starts to bang on a table and ripping up papers...awesome!

Also, I didnt find it boring. I mean, yes its slow paced, I guess you have to be in the mood to see a slow film.

Unknown said...

Well said! I love this film too and I love the slow burn as we gradually get drawn into this world and begin to empathize with the characters. Plus, I love that this film is absolutely dripping with atmosphere. Amazing stuff. I haven't seen this film in ages but I do remember really being taken with it. Now, I wanna pull out the DVD and watch it!

Cinema Du Meep said...

Open Your Eyes should have been renamed Open My Bra. Starring Penelope's Cruzes.

Franco Macabro said...

It certainly is a great movie to watch for Halloween, hope you enjoy it J.D.

Anonymous said...

Ranking right up there with my favorite ghost story films of all time. I almost didn't give it a chance due to Kidman's involvement. She was surprisingly great in it.

Excellent review.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this movie is far better than Ebert (a reviewer I highly respect) indicated. It operates on several levels. It's much more than a mere ghost story. It makes you think! And yes, it's scary too.

Franco Macabro said...

Anonymous, if you enjoyed this film a lot, I recommend you check out a similar film called The Innocents, I had a chance to see it recently and noticed how similar it is in tone to The Others. Thanks for commenting!


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