I’m tired, I’m bored, and the last thing I want to do is watch Nicole Kidman softly emote for two hours. I have one of those little nagging headaches that sits just behind your eyes – the kind of headache that whispers softly, “Stop staring at your computer screen and go outside for a bit idiot. You’re dying of stagnancy.”
I have just finished “The Wolf Man.” It has left me more than a little bit disenchanted. Heck it left me so cold, I’m frostbitten. I feel all horror movied out. I know that I definitely have the time to watch another movie before I get too tired to function, but… I just can’t stare at that screen any longer. There’s too much pressure behind my eyes and too much pressure to like these movies.
The next movie I plan to watch is one which I am pretty certain I will not like. “The Others” was recommended by my mother. I know – partly from my own unnecessarily expansive knowledge of these things, and partly because my mother likes it and I know what kinds of movies my mother likes – that it is a slow, meditative, scare-lite ghost story with a pedigree and pretensions to greatness. I stare at it on my Netflix queue, and the thought of watching it makes my head hurt more. I can’t bring myself to press play. Instead I slam the computer shut. Not tonight, Nicole Kidman.
Lying in my bed, wishing my headache into oblivion, flipping through the channels on my television set (I could lie and say I did something really cool and worthwhile with my time like clubbing or skydiving, but who would that serve? Oh, wait… Me. That would serve me. Damn.) I can’t find anything I want to slowly drift into a migraine coma with. ESPN? Nope. Travel, Food Network, Comedy Central? Nothing good on. AMC?
I know it the minute the image changes and I see before me a candle-lit room with two pale little children somberly reading their Bibles… I’ve never seen “The Others” before, not even a clip, but I know exactly what I’ve just happened upon – this little somber affair glowering at me from my television screen is “The Others,” and I am going to watch it. “Who am I to disobey a clear sign from the horror movie gods?” I think as I chuckle and sit up straight in bed, ready for some tasteful scares. As I slowly get into the narrative, I can feel my computer-screen-headache fading away. You win this time, Nicole Kidman. You win this time…
Hmmm… It’s a tough question. I think watching this one on TV killed some of the momentum, especially considering I jumped in to “The Others” about twenty minutes in so I missed some valuable exposition.
Missing the first twenty minutes actually threw my perception of this movie off rather dramatically. You see, I thought I’d missed a lot more of the movie than I actually had. I hopped on during a rather intimate scene between mother and her two children, and I assumed, because of the familiarity shared that there had been at least a few more scenes like this one prior – which actually served to make me think the movie was, in total, way longer and more draggy than it actually is.
I found, when I went back and watched the first twenty minutes on Netflix, that I had actually caught the movie at precisely the moment the director, Alejandro Amenabar, was truly introducing us to the children, troublemaker Anne and mommy’s boy Nicholas, who are the focus of the better if less profound part of this film. The other primary characters we get to know are mother Grace – played by Kidman as a cold, slightly unhinged taskmaster who could shatter her icy, uber-religious exterior at any second and snap – and “the help,” three kindly but mysterious servants who show up on a foggy day to help Mrs. Grace Stewart take care of her isolated mansion and her sickly children.
It is telling that the new housekeepers are introduced by Amenabar before the children. They flit about the outskirts of this movie, being kind while saying vaguely menacing things to undercut their inherently cuddly Britishness (old British people= Awwwww!), and because I missed the strange circumstances under which they arrive at the house, I didn’t really take notice this, at least not as anything special. This was not good as far as oversights go, because in doing so I overlooked the key to this film.
I won’t spoil the film for you, but I will say the housekeepers are a main driving point behind the building suspense in this haunted-house movie. If you watch the beginning, then you understand that their kindness (and occasional ability to know more than they should) is a strange counter to their overly fortuitous and somewhat eerie arrival on the grounds of the Stewart mansion. If you miss that arrival, straight out of a spooky storybook, then the subtle rise in tension that happens whenever Mrs. Mills (who was Eloise Hawking on “Lost”!!!) takes the steering wheel and talks with one of the kids about their mother’s madness or when the housekeepers share a knowing glance is also lost on you.
The first time I watched, I found it tonally abrupt when these scenes would interrupt more explicitly haunted ones. The movie seemed split in two – Kidman’s character frantically losing her grip as her house is assailed by “intruders” only her daughter can see made up the more irritating but scarier half of the film, while the housekeepers taking the children aside or the children antagonizing and then comforting each other while outside their mothers purview comprises a more intriguing, but oddly comforting, movie. The second time, knowing what role the housekeepers might play, I got the full effect – those quiet scenes between Mrs. Mills and the children are building tension just as much as scenes where Grace touts a shotgun around while faces in out-of-focus paintings hover over her shoulder in darkness like menacing ghosts that seem ever more wary to show their face.
The question, when you understand the full range of characters on display in “The Others” is who is meant to be scary? Is it the housekeepers who know more then they probably should and have such ready access to the adorable moppets who are so fragile they can not even be exposed to sunlight? Is it the spectral presence that seems to be getting ever closer to stripping away what little familial happiness Grace can find in her home, considering her husband is presumed dead, a victim of World War II (by the way, this film is set in 1945), and considering she is such a spoilsport? Or is it Grace herself, guarding a secret she will not let anyone talk about, pouting and glaring and yelling and generally mucking about in happier characters lives while she traipses about with a shotgun and a vague notion that something from another world is trying to harm her children? It’s strange to feel more scared by the haunted character (Grace) then by whatever presence is doing the haunting, but “The Others” wisely puts us in that position.
All the same, it’s not the most exciting position to be in. “The Others” is a slow, relatively tame movie. I liked it a lot more then I though I would, and it got some fair scares out of me, but it is all the things I thought I would be – moody, introspective, a little full of itself and even more full of Nicole Kidman. I don’t really care for Nicole Kidman in this movie. She’s in show-off mode and her character is so unsympathetic as to throw off the balance in this film a little more than I would like it to be thrown off. That imbalance all fits into some shattering revelations at the end rather nicely, but it makes viewing the hour or so that comes between the great beginning and smash-bang finale a bit dreary, confusing and muddled. The tone of that middle section is great, all dark candle-lit rooms and religious parables, but the pacing is all off. The looming presence of Grace Stewart, mommy on the edge of madness, cannot seem to get out of the way of her own carefully constructed movie. Her character fits perfectly into a well-conceived plot that manages to be both vague and tightly wound, but as an on-screen presence, she manages to be neither scary or sympathetic, falling perpetually into a grey area that is darker and more forbidding then even the dimly-lit rooms in which she scolds and resents her hard-to-manage children. Which basically a fancy way of saying that this ice queen is annoying as hell.
- Scariest Scene: The best spoiler-free way to put it – the housekeepers are done playing done, and so they march down a foggy hillside with a purpose. The children are not okay with this development. It’s a beautifully composed and terrifying image.
- Best Scene: Everything that follows the scariest scene. We find out who exactly the “intruders” are and what that information means for the Stewarts. I saw it coming from twenty miles away, but knowing WHAT is going on does not mean you know HOW it came about. The how here is creepy to the max, and the way its all revealed to the audience is so creative and, in its own way, wonderfully mundane. Seriously, even if you don’t like the first hour or so, stick around for the last half hour!
- I need to find some movies with some black people. The scoreboard is still Convention 1, Black Guys 2.
- I think this movie does a great job of capturing the rhythms of childhood speech and interaction. Both kids give great performances, and it’s a good thing for this film too, because its them your supposed to be rooting for – from their perspective, their mother (and our ostensible protagonist) is the villain as often as “Victor,” with his mean-old curtain-moving tendencies.
- This film seriously looks fantastic. Even when it drags narratively, the tone set by the shut-off atmosphere keeps you going. The decision to have the kids be sensitive to light pays huge dividends because it guarantees that, even when nothing is going on, its going on in moody darkness and the threat of a curtain being torn open is always there. Seriously, candle-light does wonders in ghost stories.