Twisty Gothic Horror The Others Remains a Classic 20 Years On

The Others, Alejandro Amenábar’s supernatural masterpiece, is classic enough in its stylings to appear as from out of time. What we have is a haunting, a particular set of arcane rules, conspiratorial outsiders, and things unseen in the darkness. Our reception of the film will likely be influenced by the appearance, two years prior, of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. Both films bear the trappings of an older Hollywood, but the famous twist ending of the previous film creates an unavoidable expectation in our reception of cinematic ghosts at the turn of the century. The success or failure of the film hinges on a vital sequence towards the end of the film. A warning to the cautious: I will, in time, be discussing this sequence. If you’ve not seen this film, I heartily encourage you to do so before reading on.

Over the titles, we hear Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) recounting the Christian creation story. The opening scene features a thick fog resting over a large estate on the island of Jersey. Christian certainty and Gothic shadows are the competing forces driving much of the drama to follow.

The atmosphere, as established in that opening scene, is dominated by a brooding, languorous presentation of Gothic architectonics. This is both a credit to the production design and part of the arcane rules adhered to within the film. Grace’s two children, Nicholas (James Bentley) and Anne (Alakina Mann), are said to have severe photosensitivity. If they are exposed to sunlight, they will become burned and develop breathing problems.

As a defence against this, Grace seals the house against light like a boat against water. Candlelight dominates many scenes in the film. The result is fantastic, both where the atmosphere is concerned and within the rules established by Grace. There is a memorable shot where a pale, spectral face is revealed to be that of a portrait. In this way, Amenábar confidently preys on our expectations. This feeling for the claustrophobia of shadows allows the director to take advantage of the frame. Concentrating the light into diegetic sources creates pockets of darkness wherein our fears are projected alongside the action.

The Stewart family is a hermetic entity. The children are home-schooled by their mother, who teaches them Bible stories. When they misbehave, the children are told they risk spending eternity in Limbo. When Anne first admits to seeing a boy called Victor in the house, she is swiftly punished for telling a lie. Conspicuously absent is the father, who we’re told has left for the front.

Part of the haunting temporal suspension of the drama is the pace at which information regarding the war is introduced. We know he is off fighting the Germans, but the only distinguishing factor to which we are privy is that the island was occupied. We must be in the 1940s. However, it is suggested that the war is long over. There is an expectation that the father will return, despite the anxiety underlying Grace’s unwillingness to admit otherwise. Grace seals off her family against the possibility that the father will not return. The sepulchral pallor of the home secures the survival of the Stewarts.

Others arrive to penetrate the sphere of seclusion in the opening minutes of the film. Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan) leads Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and Lydia (Elaine Cassidy) out of the ever-present fog and onto the steps of the Stewart’s mansion. They are answering a posting for servants, the previous employees having unexpectedly fled the week prior. In this way, the action of the film takes shape. If the Stewarts are contained within themselves, the introduction of variable forces will test the limits of Grace’s control. Quickly, cracks start to appear in the seal around the home. Curtains are left open and doors unlocked. It’s taken first as carelessness on the part of the servants, an inability to adapt to the peculiarity of life in the mansion.

Mrs. Mills, however, suggests that there is something not quite at rest in the house. This suspicion is echoed in the behaviour of Anne, who claims to see a small boy called Victor in the bedroom she and her brother share. When nobody is found, Grace can only admit that her children sometimes take flights of fancy. Mrs. Mills admits to Anne that the world of the dead sometimes gets mixed with the world of the living. Grace sets off to fetch the local priest, but, losing her way, stumbles upon the approaching figure of her husband Charles (Christopher Eccleston). It’s in revelations like this that the spatio-temporal ambiguity most successfully plays on narrative logic. The world of the film becomes uncertain as we move away from the Stewart’s home and its immediate grounds. As this uncertainty rises, so does narrative possibility. We come to understand that the imagination can place any piece onto the board, forcing characters and spectators alike to respond in turn.

Through all of this, it is only Mrs. Mills and Mr. Tuttle who seem to know what is going on. They are confident the children will believe, but the mother is stubborn. Grace is further alarmed when Anne admits to seeing another presence, that of an old woman, in the house. This old woman, Anne says, appears to see her but looks right through her. This Other has an intentionality not available to Victor. The previous intruder is content to leave curtains and doors open. The old woman watches you, perhaps studies you. She is curious about the figures on the other side.

In short order, Grace is brought face to face with the woman in what is the most accomplished – and most famous – scene in the film. Anne is being fitted for her communion dress. She plays with her toy as she hums the melody to which she often accompanies herself. An old woman looks out from under the veil. Those on the outside are no longer content only to stomp around or twinkle a few keys on the piano. What was first cracks in the hermetic seal has now been thrown open into apparent possession. Grace strikes at the figure until her daughter again looks out at her.

Despite Grace’s Christian teaching, there is a violence rolling just under the surface. This violence breaks through when she confronts the old woman in the form of her daughter, a physical confrontation Anne makes clear has happened before. Grace strikes out as the Others close in. She can’t help but read the unwelcome presence as malefic, if only because they disrupt the careful routine erected around the home. She is waiting for the return of her husband and, in so doing, seeks to preserve the inner working of the family. More than once does Mrs. Mills suggest the kids might not be so susceptible to sunlight. What is wrong with them cannot be explained, nor can it be tested. Grace’s refusal to admit otherwise becomes increasingly desperate, protecting the children not so much from sunlight but from the outside as such. This fear of the outside comes home when Grace discovers a mourning portrait of the three servants.

Concurrently, the children discover headstones bearing the names of Mrs. Mills, Mr. Tuttle, and Lydia. A doubt creeps into the ontology of the film. The presence of these three figures has been fully realised from the opening of the film, yet we have not been given an independent appearance of the other haunting figures. Despite their being ghosts, the servants appear benevolent. They neither throw open windows nor rattle their chains, a classic image of the ghost often referenced by Anne. Likewise absent is the white sheet of a M.R. James apparition. With all the pieces in place, Amenábar can stage the final act of his game.

If you haven’t guessed it, the full nature of the preceding events is soon revealed in another bravura sequence. Grace, in searching the house for the other intruders, stumbles upon a séance. The trappings are pure Gothic, from attendees holding hands in a circle to the blind medium lost in automatic writing. Grace cannot believe her eyes. Angered, she moves around the table, tearing up sheets of paper. The camera dollies around with her as she fades in and out of corporeality. The papers she tears are briefly shown tearing themselves apart, as from the perspective of the séance. And there you have it. Grace, Anne, and Nicholas are the Others tormenting a family newly moved into the mansion. What we have seen is the haunting presence unaware of its own liminal existence. When, at the end of the film, Grace admits that they will not be leaving, we have witnessed something like the founding legend of a haunted house.

It’s this shift in perspective that makes The Others worth a second look. Behind the shock of the twist ending is a film that remains interesting. It’s interesting both because it is competently made and for the Gothic cosmology it suggests. Rather than looking in on the lives of a family experiencing a supernatural intrusion, we witness the slow acceptance of Death by the departed.

Consider the various gnomic expressions uttered by Charles. The father, in looking for his home, admits that he “sometimes bleeds” and has seen “lots of dead bodies.” While this is certainly in relation to his time on the front, the nature of these experiences is left ambiguous. The servants, when they admit that Grace is not ready to believe, know that Charles doesn’t even know where he is. In light of the revelation, this isn’t a comment on the father’s spatial disassociation, but his inability to accept the fact of his own death.

The Christian certainty regarding life after death – the tripartite teleology of the Commedia – is here replaced with a veritable jungle of ghostly existence. As such, it would be reductive to read the film as a meditation on grief, or anything so boring and commonplace as that. It’s more interesting to watch The Others as animating the interstitial moments of other haunted house stories. I encourage you to play a game with the film, expanding on the events to encompass the unseen figures on the other side. Cinema, after all, requires the imagination of filmmakers and spectators alike.

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