THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Thank goodness for The Sixth Sense. M. Night Shayamalan's 1999 mega-blockbuster proved to Hollywood that mass audiences can appreciate a smart, carefully crafted thriller that rewards those who pay close attention. The Others is the direct recipient of this good fortune, and although it's a cliche for film critics to say one movie is this year's version of another big hit, it really applies in this case. Like The Sixth Sense, The Others relies more on atmosphere than standard horror "beats." Also, the final 20 minutes contain not one but two surprise plot twists that left me as exhilarated as I was fooled.

Set in a gigantic mansion in the English countryside near the end of WWII, the movie stars Nicole Kidman as Grace. She lives in the mansion with her two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). Her husband has disappeared after going off to join the war. One day, a trio of servants show up at the house looking for work. They are led by Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), who claims to have worked there many years prior. Grace hires Mrs. Mills and her companions to do chores and help care for the children. She also explains the somewhat strange rules of the home. Because Anne and Nicholas are "photosensitive," they must avoid bright light at any cost. Rooms are to be lit with nothing brighter than a candle. The curtains must be drawn at all times. One door must be completely closed before another can be opened.

Nicole Kidman isn't sure if the figure is her daughter or a ghost in The Others
Almost from the time the new servants arrive, strange things start to happen. Noises come from rooms that nobody is occupying. Anne starts claiming that there are "intruders" in the home: a man, a woman, a little boy, and a scary looking old woman. Grace thinks it's childhood imagination run amok, but as time goes on, more and more things start defying explanation. The story leaves open all sorts of possibilities: it could be Anne seeing things, it could be the servants playing tricks, or it could be that Grace is simply losing her grip on reality. Of course, maybe the place really is haunted.

And that's all I'm going to say about the plot. This is one of those movies where you won't want anyone to tell you about it before you see it. What I can tell you is that the surprises at the end are not gimmicks; they are genuine twists that naturally extend from the plot. When all has been revealed, The Others proves to be not just an effective ghost story, but a film of surprising psychological depth as well.

This is the English-language debut from director Alejandro Amendbar, and although he fills the picture with familiar ghost story elements (doors slamming, noises coming from locked rooms, etc.), it never feels cliched. You can tell that all the elements are leading to something, as opposed to being there just to be scary. The superb performance from Nicole Kidman also plays a part in revealing that there is more to the film than meets the eye. The actress gives the story a gravity that it needs. Grace's determination to protect her children from harm makes her a formidable heroine. On a television entertainment program, Kidman's ex-husband Tom Cruise (who is one of the producers) commented that she "owns" the role. He is quite right about that.

The Others is deliberately paced, with lots of emphasis put on building - and sustaining - an eerie atmosphere. It's a skillfully made thriller. But the ending is what really sells it. A lot of movies this summer didn't quite deliver on their promise. This one gives you all the requisite chills and thrills, and still manages to be about something.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Others is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and frightening moments. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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