Significant Others

Nicole Kidman's latest film The Others is a one-off in today’s Hollywood - reaching back to a time when horror was formal, sincere, and truly frightening.

Sandy Starr

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Has there ever been a film so simultaneously comforting and discomforting as The Others?

Nicole Kidman plays a woman who lives in a mansion on a misty island, obsessively protecting her two ‘photosensitive’ children from exposure to light – a plot device that provides a perfect excuse for shadowy scares and unsettling sounds. It is forever dark inside the house, and on the few occasions when we venture outside there is oppressive fog everywhere.

The tale begins when three servants knock on the mansion door to offer their services – before we discover, of course, that the previous servants left suddenly in mysterious circumstances. The glum, pale children claim that there are ‘others’ in the house with them, resulting in punishment from their stern, Catholic mother, who thinks they are telling tales. But creepy things keep happening, and it soon becomes obvious that They Are Not Alone.

The critics who have heaped praise on The Others have grasped for other films to relate it to. Because of The Others’ determination to frighten with subtlety and suggestion, critics compare it to The Blair Witch Project. Because of its twists and turns, critics compare it to The Sixth Sense and Jacob’s Ladder. But these comparisons all fall wide of the mark.

The truest predecessor to The Others is Dead of Night, a 1945 British effort that scared the life out of audiences without resorting to blood or shock tactics, and had an eerie twisty-turny ending. Just as the recent Sleepy Hollow paid tribute to the camp Hammer horror films of the 1960s and 1970s, so The Others reaches back even further in film history, to a time when horror was formal and sincere.

But for all its discomfort, The Others is comforting, too. It has a familiarity to it. Despite the presence of the world-famous Kidman, watching The Others in the cinema is strangely like watching an old classic with your grandmother at teatime. The tone of the film is quaintly dated, and most of the cast are little-known faces that could originate from any era.

There is an exception to this. In a masterstroke of casting, British comedy legend Eric Sykes, wearing a permanent air of bemusement, plays one of the mansion’s three new servants. Now aged 78 and even more deaf than he used to be, Sykes looks like he’s wandered into The Others from some ancient, forgotten broadcast. Between being frightened out of my wits, I kept expecting him to break into a slapstick routine from The Plank.

It would be nice to think that The Others signals a renaissance of old-fashioned cinema frightfests, but this is unlikely. The film’s style is excruciatingly hard to pull off, especially to the satisfaction of a cynical modern audience, and it’s hard to see how its central twist could be copied.

So it’s probably best to think of The Others as a one-off, floating strangely in and out of Hollywood’s release schedules, leaving without a sound.

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