For a brief time in the ‘90s, you heard a lot of talk about “the death of the horror film”. The slasher formulae seemed to have run its course, indeed killed itself with parody in Scream.
The notion that horror movies had gone to their grave turned out to be fanboy handwringing combined with, in some quarters, wishful thinking. Scream didn’t laugh the genre off-stage, but rather introduced the meta-slasher, films that deconstructed the classic maniac killer formulae. These movies made a ton of money, spawned inferior sequels and occasionally came up with an original contribution to the genre (as in the first entry in the Urban Legend series).
Moreover, unquiet spirits started rattling their chains at the beginning of the millennium. The 1999 mega-hit The Sixth Sense gave us an old fashioned ghost story with a twist. A number of films went into production in its eerie wake that tried to tell tales set in the best tradition of M.R. James and Ambrose Bierce. The cruel and vengeful spirits of J-Horror soon followed, giving us a ghostly renaissance at the box office.
The recent release of Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others on Blu-ray gives us a crisp and gorgeous look at the best of these paranormal thrillers, a well-wrought tale so taunt with tension and suspense that the effect is more that of a Poe story than a horror movie. Although famous for the unforgettable ending, its not a Shyamalanesque ending that half the audience sees coming. Once you know the film’s dark secret, you don’t have the sense of a manipulative directorial contrivance. It feels organic, complete, deeply thoughtful and will chill you to the bone.
The tale itself is set on one of the English Channel islands at the end of World War II. Grace Stewart, played ridiculously well by Nicole Kidman, is the mistress of a grand old English manor. She lives there with her two children who suffer from “Xeroderma Pigmentosum”, an extreme photosensitivity that makes exposure to light deadly for them. This of course means that heavy curtains must hang from the high windows and a minimum of candlelight shines in the high-ceilinged rooms and dark halls.
This provides a perfect setting for the frightful fun to begin. We learn in the first few minutes that the domestic servants have mysteriously departed but that a new set has arrived. They are an oddly matched threesome who, it’s suggested once or twice, are hatching a dastardly plot.
Then there are the strange noises and odd events that slowly begin to build in intensity, breaking the house’s (and the film’s) intense, brooding silence. Soon Grace begins to worry about “the intruders” in the house, the titular “others” who she begins to fear might be hiding in every pool of darkness around every corner.
There is not a cheap, manipulative scare in the entire film. Leaning not on SFX (and no CGI), Amenábar used the silences to maximum effect, creating an atmosphere that strangles you with fear while making you hungry for more. Only one or two moments deliver the traditional shocks of the genre and even these are minimalist terrors, powerful in part because they are born out of the film’s dread-drenched atmosphere and finely crafted tensions.
We have Kidman to thank for much of this. Her portrayal of Grace becomes the centerpiece of the film and indeed, her face is in almost every frame, registering confusion, nervousness, and fear. Starring in a film like this (particularly given what we learn about her character by the end) is also a register of her bravery as an actor, a bravery she showed again when she played the much abused main character of Dogville a few years later.
Amenábar can be given the balance of the credit for the film’s success. The Chilean director’s aesthetic sensibility proved perfect for this film, a blend of sadness and impending psychological crisis that also appears in films like his 1997 Open Your Eyes and, more recently, The Sea Inside. A composer, Amenábar is also responsible for the score that provides a minimalist counterpoint to the threatening quiet of the film.
The transfer to 1080p is beautiful and lets you get a gorgeous view of all the interesting textures and imaginative lighting the film has to offer. The cinematography is really demanding since almost every single scene is filmed in an enclosed, darkly lit space. The Blu-ray shows off the lighting contrasts at work here, as well as the papery white skins of Grace and her troubled children. The audio upgrade is also superior, picking up in 5:1 some of the harrowing footfalls and ghostly sounds that make you feel that the intruders are right there in the room with you.
Sadly, the extras for the new Blu-Ray release are less than compelling. The “Making of” featurette heaps much-deserved praise on Kidman and Amenábar, shows numerous clips from the film and that’s about it. A short feature about the reality of Xeroderma Pigmentosum does little more than tell you it’s a real disease and provide a somewhat sentimental portrayal of a family dealing with it. A short feature on visual effects is worthwhile, but another meant to be “an intimate view” of the director is only some clips of his working day rather than a review of his career.
The biggest disappointment is the failure to include a director and actor’s commentary track. In general, we tend to learn more about the making of a film from these than from any canned “making of” feature. This is a film that deserves such a commentary for its tenth anniversary, especially given the craftsmanship that Kidman and Amenábar brought to the project.
I suspect most of those who will pick up the Blu-ray are already aware of the brilliant conceit at the heart of the film. Let me just say that if you already know the secret of The Others, and the terrible secret about Grace and her children, you’ll still enjoy a second or third viewing. Indeed, knowing the outcome thickens the atmosphere of irrationality and terror even beyond your first experience.
Like me, you may be weary of found footage horror and the rapid-edit cheap scare. If so, take this opportunity to intrude on Grace Stewart and her strange little family in their very dark house.