Just when you thought that the ghost story had nothing more to give, that the haunted house was left without so much as a skeleton in the closet, along comes The Others to open new doors into rooms we never even knew existed.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. For most of Alejandro Amenábar's mischievous, malevolently murky English-language debut, you'll find yourself enjoying a familiar ride. First off, there's the kind of impossibly large, forebodingly drab abode that seems to be at the top of any self-respecting spectre's real estate wish-list. Then there's the obligatory, impenetrable fog, smothering the grounds like a sullied shroud. The theatricality of the events and the camp quality of the humour - most specifically Eric Sykes' droll utterances as gardener Mr Tuttle - recall the golden days of Hammer horror. And finally there's an icy veneer to Nicole Kidman's leading lady that's straight out of the Hitchcock Blonde manual... Especially when the façade cracks to show the turmoil within.
The sedate pacing and withheld terrors, meanwhile, recall '60s spook tales The Haunting and The Innocents, Amenábar choosing eerie sounds and impending doom over garish thrills and viscous effects. Here, atmosphere is key, and much of the movie is spent following Grace from gloomy room to gloomy room as she pensively investigates alien noises. Her children's light-sensitive condition, of course, offers a handy excuse to keep the lights dim.
And so the movie creeps along, slooowly wrapping itself around your heart and beginning to squeeze. Grace's gradual disintegration is rendered entirely believable by Kidman, whose brittle, wide-eyed performance will induce flutters in even the most hardened viewer, while the occasional shock hits you like a chest-puncturing adrenaline shot. The children, meanwhile - brilliantly played by debutantes Alakina Mann and James Bentley - somehow make you both worry for their safety and suspect their parts in all this, while the trio of servants are clearly Not Quite Right.
Plainly there is more going on here than meets the eye, and your initial guesses as to just how much more will eventually, no doubt, give way to frantic second-guessing in an attempt to prevent a pulled-rug scenario.
Our advice? Don't even try - just sit back and enjoy the deliciously clammy chills. Amenábar proved he has a mighty gift for messing-up minds with Open Your Eyes, his labyrinthine Spanish-language thriller starring Penélope Cruz, and this only confirms that talent. Safe to say, you'll stumble out of the cinema with hands clapped over ears to prevent scrambled brain leakage. And then walk straight back in to check it all holds up.
An old-fashioned scary movie with some ingenious touches, The Others refreshes the parts few other thrillers have reached this year. Some may find it a little slow, others a tad quaint, but this has suspense, scares and a few surprises.
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