That freaked me out! Many people were terrified by The Blair Witch Project, not because it was gory or had ugly monsters but because it worked on your imagination. I didn't find that movie particularly did it for me... but this did. You don't know what's going on. Maybe it's evil or maybe it's something else, but whatever it is... it's WRONG.
We start with Nicole Kidman showing off a cut-glass accent in a period piece of servants, country houses and Jersey in 1945. The class distinctions in The Others are as sharp as a knife, which is all to the good. This film is like a Victorian ghost story and its sense of period is all-important. Immersed in its black-and-white world, we drift back to the era of the various Jameses (Henry James and his The Turn of the Screw, or perhaps the masterful M.R. James). It reminded me a lot of Turn of the Screw, in fact, though its revelations and twists are completely different. It's a mood thing. Like that famous book, The Others uses effects so subtle you'll have your radar tuned to detect the slightest sound or nuance.
For a while, I found this film hard going. It's filmed in a colour palette so muted that you'll wonder why they didn't go the whole hog and just use black-and-white. Frankly, the film looks drab. A teddibly, teddibly well-mannered family (Nicole Kidman and two impressive child actors) hide in a big house and shout at their three servants. It's all rather joyless.
Nicole Kidman's character is a weird lady. She practically terrorises her two children with some scary theology, though the daughter shows signs of independent thinking. Religion is a big deal in their lives.
But then the oddness gets going.
You won't know what's going on for the longest time. At one point I thought I'd guessed the secret, but I wasn't even halfway. In the meantime, you'll be spooked by touches as subtle as realising that the sound of Kidman's footsteps isn't the sound of Kidman's footsteps. This is how you do a haunted house film, not the CGI-laden nonsense of the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill. You don't need to turn your film into a fairground carnival. Concentrate on the subtleties and suddenly your audience will find themselves screaming at a closing door or a tinkling piano.
This film's shocks don't involve gore or rubber monsters, just pure "What the hell???" moments. There aren't many, but that just makes them all the more effective when they do appear. For the rest of its running time, it works on slowly building atmosphere and keeping you paranoid.
Incidentally, the title is perfect. On first glance, it looks like the dullest title in the world... but in fact it's exactly in line with the film's tone: understatement rather than shrieking melodrama.
In all seriousness, this is a bloody good film. Had this been made in 1945, we'd all be hailing it as an essential classic of the genre... and hell, it feels as if it might be that old. The historical feel of this film is rock-solid, down to the tiniest details. This is an old-fashioned story of a kind I'd thought they'd forgotten how to tell. Comparisons with The Sixth Sense are probably inevitable, but personally I think this is the better film. It's harder to get into for a casual viewer, but there's nothing particularly challenging about what The Sixth Sense was trying to do. It's well done, but The Others strikes me as a far more difficult and risky challenge. This kind of story is monstrously delicate and difficult to do well, but the result is a triumph.
Note: in drawing this comparison, I'm not just talking about slight story similarities and overlapping subgenres. The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense in 1999 suddenly made intelligent, subtle horror bankable and this is a project that clearly got through on the back of The Sixth Sense. The Others is in no sense a remake or a retread of that earlier movie, but in a certain sense it's almost its child.
You've got to be paying attention. If you just crack open a beer and challenge it to terrify you, you'll get bored. But if your antennae are out and quivering, you'll notice how what should be the happiest of all moments gets transformed by the actors into something downright disquieting. Some films scare you with gore, zombies or monsters. This film scares you with the unknown, producing perhaps the purest kind of fear there is. Something's wrong and you don't know what. Damn, it's good.