When the Living Are Dead

The Others.jpg
Illustration by Margarita Gladkikh

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.

The Others is a skillfully crafted horror movie that’s worth watching because of its ending. The film seems like it’s going to be your typical dose of contemporary horror: isolation, a large estate drowned in fog, religious themes, and children. Director and screenwriter Alejandro Amenábar keeps his piece expertly free of the cheap scares that we’ve come to expect from contemporary horror. He keeps his audience waiting in the dread of not knowing what’s going to happen. Why are the children kept away from light? Why are the servants so strange? Why does the gardener cover gravestones with leaves?

The movie swiftly develops an air of mystery through unnerving the audience with the dusty mansion, Grace’s nightmare, the disappearance of the old servants, and their peculiar replacements. The Stewarts believe that there are ghosts in their house because the piano plays itself and footsteps without attached bodies thunder around upstairs. However, the genius of the movie arises when the audience realizes the Stewarts are the ghosts, haunting the mansion that the new family occupies.

The Others is one of those movies that seemingly reveals the plot to the audience in the beginning. But the audience only realizes upon viewing the movie for a second time that the servants were in on the secret that the Stewarts are dead from the beginning of the movie. However, the audience is not aware of this and neither are the Stewarts. Clearly something is off throughout the film, but the audience struggles in putting together the subtle clues left behind by Amenábar: the servants disappearing after the deaths of the Stewarts, the absence of the postman, and the new family viewing the house.

It is rather tough for an audience to pinpoint a specific antagonist in this film. Could it be Grace, her devious daughter Anne, or the strange housekeeper Bertha Mills? For some time I wondered whether Grace was mentally stable because of her increasing frenzied behaviour, devoutness, and need for control.

The audience knows something happened “that day”, which was when Grace gave in to her mental instabilities, smothered her children, and shot herself. In the end, the audience is finally able to piece the clues together and we understand that Grace went insane from the grief of her husband’s death at war, which was exacerbated by the fog that kept them isolated from the rest of the world. Amenábar points out through Bertha that “grief over the death of a loved one can lead people to do the strangest things”. This is clearly aimed at Grace, who did what she did to escape from the bottomless pit of pain she was imprisoned in. But it also presents the effect that war has on families that were torn up by loved ones who went to fight and never returned.

Religion is a prominent aspect of the film, especially since the only thing the children do is read the Bible. However, in the end, the devout Grace is devastated by her broken faith because, to her, it is impossible for the dead and the living to exist in the same realm. The Stewarts are stuck in some sort of limbo or purgatory. Perhaps because they didn’t die naturally, their souls weren’t ready to ascend to heaven, thus leaving them trapped in the house.

Amenábar doesn’t overuse background music, but when it’s present, it’s the classic, bloodthirsty sound of violins in pain. The absence of background music emphasizes the isolation from the lack of sight to the lack of sound. Weather is used to reflect the mood of the film through the heavy fog that is prominent throughout the movie except for two scenes. One scene depicts Grace’s husband Charles return from war and the other scene at the end of the movie, when the family accepts their deaths.

The Others is an intelligent piece of cinematography that raises the bar for future supernatural/psychological horror movies. Amenábar twists everything we’ve come to expect from horror and delivers this masterpiece. This is the rare horror movie that genuinely shocks and impresses the skeptical, jaded viewer who has lost their faith in good scares. When the audience realizes that the Stewarts and the servants are ghosts, we’re horrified. The job is done. Granted, Amenábar fell short when it came to characterization, though he had great control when it came to building up to the twist. Overall, the pacing of the movie was well thought-out to maintain constant suspense. What really stands out about this movie is Amenábar’s talent for directing and storytelling, and the brilliance of the movie can only be appreciated when watching it for the second time.

-Contributed by Chindu Palakal

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