Catharsis is a word I often use to describe why I love horror films. The fear and the tension build up, like an ocean wave, and then recede back from where they came, taking whatever else was laying on the beach of my mind, leaving me relaxed and calm... a blank slate of sand. With all the horror films I see, however, it becomes harder and harder to achieve this state. The Others provided catharsis for the first time in a great while, and also gave me another gift: my first scream ever.
Set on a secluded island in 1945 England, the film begins with Grace (Nicole Kidman) opening her doors to new servants in her gargantuan mansion home. The previous help had disappeared mysteriously, leaving no note or request for final payment. The curtains in this house are always shut, and the rooms are always dark, because Grace's son and daughter have a strange condition: an allergy to bright light. Therefore, strict rules must be followed in order to protect them. However, strange things are happening in this house that no-one can explain...and it's wearing on the minds of all of the inhabitants, especially Grace.
Atmospherically directed by Alejandro Amenábar (Thesis, Open Your Eyes), The Others is filled with visuals that create suspense, dread, and fear. He and the cinematographer should both be commended, especially for their work with shadows and fog (one shot is nicely lifted from Kwaidan, a Japanese horror anthology). The editor, however, paces the beginning just a bit too slowly and the second act sags a little. Luckily, any footing lost in the tension department is quickly regained. The end is extremely well-done, and one particular sequence gave me the aforementioned scream, unbidden and unbridled. It takes a lot to unnerve me, but I was shaken. So was the rest of the audience in the near-packed theater, judging from my vocal accompaniment.
The performances in the film are excellent. Kidman was good, creating a three-dimensional character, a caring mother whose love is mixed with her almost fanatical Catholic faith. She's very subdued, but I thought at a few key points she could have been a little more intense. The children alternate between decent and annoying...like most child actors not named Haley Joel Osment. The nanny is given some great material to work with and plays it to the hilt (and I'm a sucker for an Irish accent).
However, none of these elements can truly be anything without a strong backbone to support them. An excellent film needs at least a good script, and The Others has one. It's quiet, methodical, filled with unexpected twists and turns that have you second-guessing yourself. I could have done without one subplot involving the children's father, but the main storyline is excellent, especially the end.
All of these elements come together to make what has been the best horror film of 2001, and one of the better supernatural thrillers ever. Though it has some flaws, the end product creates effectively what many otherwise perfect horror films don't come close to: the heebie-jeebies (to put it succinctly). I left the theater feeling like a million dollars...it's a very cathartic film, one that doesn't pull any punches in the fear department. See it.