Friday, October 21, 2011

The Others


Everyone's dead. The heroine? Dead. The weird kids? Dead. The help? Dead. The missing father? Dead. About the only people who aren't dead are the people we're supposed to be afraid of.

That's the shit I remember from watching this movie from the first time I saw it. I remember the dreary British estate, perpetually shrouded in fog. I remember Nicole Kidman all sexified in her uptight little Victorian coats. I remembered it being slow and subtle and kinda gimmicky. The problem with movies featuring Big Tweest Endings is that any future viewings of the movie always being about watching the twist being set up and the narrative turns into one big puzzle to be solved.

I was not looking forward to rewatching the movie. My first experience was pleasant but mild, like eating New York Mexican food (yeah, eat a dick NYC. You don't do everything the best. WEST COAST BITCHES!!!!) and the thought of being locked up in my house watching a bunch of uptight religious Brits dealing with unnamed dread sounded wiggidy wack.

Well shit. Now it's one of my favorite ghost movies of all time.

First off, you HAVE to see this film in the proper environment. You need to see it in a theater or, barring that, on the biggest TV you can find. This film needs your full attention. Unlike something like the Dawn of the Dead remake, which you can half-pay attention to while giving sex advice to Steve Carell, you need to enter into the atmosphere completely. The movie creates a very fragile, ephemeral air that would get ripped apart like a spider web spun on a speaker that starts playing Pitbull's "Get Me Everything."

Strained simile, I know, but I got a word count to hit and I just bought the album like 20 minutes ago.

Anyway, the reason this movie works much better than I expected it to on the second viewing is that it's absolutely lactating with gothic dread. The house is a silent, dark place, lorded over by an uptight religious matriarch of questionable sanity who never quite loses our sympathies. The kids are equally engaging; one a rebellious little firebrand you can't help but root for and the other a little scaredy cat we just want to take to our ponderous man-bosom and rock back and forth, gently reassuring him that everything will be okay. It's an atmosphere of secrets and sickness and understated malevolence. The patriarch is gone, only to come back in a shell shocked daze once his TARDIS malfunctions and drops him off at Drearydown Manors. The children have some weird vampire skin disease that renders them mortally vulnerable to sunlight. The mother coldly orders the new domestic staff around in a manner one would expect of a member of the aristocracy, laying out draconian rules and regulations for them to follow.

Then the weird sounds start echoing through the house. And the kids start making very close friends with imaginary people. You know the rest of the tune, do I really have to call it out?

The mystery is actually brilliantly constructed. The filmmakers play fair and all the reveals work in the context of the narrative. The twist doesn't come out of left field but it does a great job of coming from what had been previously established in the movie. Combine that with the old dark house and eerie, oppressive sense of dread and you have a solid Henry James-style ghost story. The bit where Kidman's character finds the book of posed photographs of dead bodies is absolutely chilling, as was the scene of the ghostly help speaking to the family from outside the door.

Even after you know the twist, when you go back and revisit the characters, you discover how well they are written and performed. For example, I really should have hated Gracie Stewart. She's deeply religious, controlling, and prone to smothering her kids with pillows. Yet for some reason she never fully lost my sympathies, even if there were some moments where she needed a whack upside the head. She had a pair of sick children, three weird caretakers, and a missing husband to worry about. She was a deeply sick woman, but also very loving. The scene where she recounts their murder and her suicide was deeply touching. Even the creepy caretakers were fantastic. They could easily have been stock characters, but Bertha Mills and her lot were a very odd combination of compassionate and menacing.

The Others is one of my favorite ghost stories of all time. I don't know if it's something I can watch more than a handful of times. The effect it creates is slow going and fragile, so it has to be experienced in the right settings, but it's still a helluva film. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes subtle eerie horror, old world ghost stories, and audiences who have a taste for sumptuous melancholy visuals.

Also, I want to give a bump to Childish Gambino, who's rich, lyrically complex music was blaring as I wrote this review. His whole album is available free here.


Gina Greenway said...

Joe - It's one of my top ten movies. I pushed my husband and son out of the house, settled down with hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps, turned the lights off and watched it on our big screen TV. It was better than the movies (no annoying teenagers laughing at the distressing scenes). I think I'm the only one, though, that didn't see the end coming when I first watched it.

Tanya said...

Haha... loved your post, Joe. Cracked me up. I personally didn't like the movie, but a big part of that is an intense dislike of Nicole Kidman. I agree with you about the kids and the servants, though. I thought they were well drawn and well acted, especially Fionulla Flanagan's character (Mills).

I actually agree more with your original take of the movie -- about it being gimmicky. The atmosphere was great, but I really think I would have enjoyed the movie more if they had not used this bizarre and freakishly rare disorder to create all the atmosphere.

I also felt it was kind of a knock off of The Sixth Sense (which came out two years before The Others), but not as well done.

Jennifer Loring said...

"His TARDIS malfunctions..." "Vampire skin disease..." You're killing me. :D I really like this film as well. I first saw it 10 years ago, and it'll probably be another 10 years before I watch it again. Completely agree with your comment about twist endings. But it's a cozy, moody little ghost story, the perfect film for an autumn evening.

Creature said...

I was wondering if anyone would get the TARDIS joke. *fist bump*

Cin Ferguson said...

Glad you enjoyed this movie. I found it really entertaining and even the second go round it was enjoyable because I got to look for things I'd missed the first time. Great posting!
Well done.

Kristina said...

Best first line to a post, ever.

I love this movie and I love this post.

On a random note, I have synesthesia and Fionulla Flanagan sounds like chicken noodles.

I had to eat a can of it after I finished the movie.