The film ‘The Others’ made by Alejandro Amenabar in 2011 is a film about a woman who lives with her two photosensitive children in their large, old home which she believes is haunted by ghosts. This film uses a large range of techniques and ideas to emphasise and contribute to its gothic themes. These techniques include dark and light imagery, symbolism and setting. The Others also uses traditional gothic ideas to develop these themes throughout the movie, including suffering, fixation of death and supernatural elements. Over all these ideas and techniques contribute to the eerie feel and suspense which makes this movie so captivating and gothic.
The first technique used in ‘The Others’ is dark and light imagery, throughout the entire film there is a battle between truth and how it is perceived and Amenabar uses this light and darkness as a symbol of this. An obvious example is the curtains which as used to block out all light and ‘protect’ the children. They create a haunting darkness throughout the entire house for the most part of the movie, this is contrasted by the candles the mother walks around with showing how she is the key to the truth. At the end of the movie when the children become aware of the truth- that their mother killed them and they’re ghosts the curtains are removed allowing light or the truth to flood into the house. The use of dark and light imagery helps enhance the gothic themes by creating the mood and setting of the film.
Another technique used to create a gothic feeling in the film is symbolism. Symbolism is used to make subtle hints to what the ‘truth’ is and to make you feel like things aren’t what they seem. Some examples are the clothing used in ‘The Others’ where Grace (the main character) wore dark, long dresses which covered up the majority of her body. These outfit choices were not only used to set the time period of the movie but it was also used a symbol. Her clothing was symbolic of the dark, repressive nature of her society and her internal suffering shown in the dark reds of her dresses. One more example is the constant looking of doors which is resemblant of entrapment of the mind and physically. This symbol also is used to depict the hidden secret which the family keeps throughout the film and the doors are only unlocked when the secret is released.
The setting was used in the film ‘The Others’ as the key stepping stone to making the movie have a gothic feeling to it. The main characters live in a large home with many different secret areas and rooms which are made more secretive by the darkness that the curtains create. These rooms are used to foreshadow for the hidden secrets which are contained in their home. The house is surrounded by a large forest which cuts them off from the rest of civilisation, this is used in gothic stories to create a feeling of isolation and to physically represent the psychological separation which the family has from the world. Beyond the forest is covered in fog which emphasises the isolation and secrecy which was a key idea which was repeatedly brought up in the film.
A common gothic idea which was used in the film ‘The Others’ was the idea of suffering both physically and psychologically and how they are linked together. Suffering is very often used in gothic stories because it shows the inner darkness of the mind and the evilness of humans. Shown in the film through Grace (the main character) who has been waiting since the war finished for her husband to come home. After years the stress of raising two children on her own and potentially losing her husband weighs on her and causes a psychological suffering which she can’t show in front of her children or staff. Eventually Grace can no longer live with the pressure of her psychological suffering and she snaps which shows the link between psychological and physical suffering and she kills her children and then herself as she can no longer bare living with the thought of what she had done. This traditional gothic idea was used in the movie to show that every day people are capable of evil and dark things when pushed.
A recurring theme throughout the entire film is a fixation with death. This is an idea used in gothic texts because of its darkness and mystery as no one really knows about what happens when one dies but we know it is the ultimate payment in life. Most gothic writers are fascinated with it and have a preoccupation with it in stories as it creates a feeling of eeriness and shows that something is not quite right. This is also linked in with supernatural elements which work as a symbol for death. In ‘The Others’ supernatural themes and a preoccupation with death are used throughout the entire film from the lingering death of the husband in the war, the book of the dead, the cemetery which surrounds the house and the constant idea of ghosts. All of these examples were used by the director to create suspense and to slowly build up and lead to the ending of the film.
Over all the film ‘The Others’ used a large range of techniques and gothic conventions in order to captivate the audience and contribute to a scary and unsettling feel over the course of the movie. These techniques are dark and light imagery which emphasises the perception of truth, Symbolism which uncovers the secret themes and ideas of the film and setting which was used to create the idea of isolation. This movie also uses many gothic ideas in order to communicate the gothic themes, these ideas include psychological and physical suffering, preoccupation with death and supernatural elements. All of these conventions were used effectively in order to create the movie’s gothic feeling.
*WARNING CONTAINS STRONG SPOILERS*
Alejandro Amenabár’s ‘The Others’ opens with a series of spooky hand drawn title shots. The last of these images is that of an old house. An excellent use of transition follows, as the hand drawn house fades into an actual house. ‘The Others’ feels like a Victorian ghost story written by Michael Cox, J. Sheridan LeFanu or Wilkie Collins. With that transition, it is as if Amenabár lifts the pages of one of these great old ghost stories directly to the screen.
Nicole Kidman plays Grace in a performance that is not your typical take of a horror movie heroine. Kidman uses realism rather than generic acting to introduce the viewers to a flawed, emotional, and troubled woman. Grace lives with her two children in an old mansion in the middle of nowhere. Anne (Alakina Mann) is the daughter and Nicholas (James Bentley) is the younger boy. However, soon three mysterious servants arrive. Since their arrival, a series of strange incidents occur as they all discover they are not alone.
Indeed, the plot is that of a typical haunted house movie. However, ‘The Others’ is much more than that, for it is quite possibly the greatest ghost story ever told on film. This is largely due to all the thought and attention Amenabár gave to his picture. This is one of those rare occasions where the director had total control over his material. Besides taking the helm, Amenabár also wrote the perfectly contained screenplay and composed the haunting yet emotional score.
The director uses metaphors and German Expressionism to tell his story. Like many expressionistic films of the later stages of that era in German film history, the expressionism in ‘The Others’ lacks exaggeration but is still nonetheless very expressionistic. The film borrows themes of the lost genre by dealing with insanity, madness, mirrors and a dark urban setting.
The atmosphere in the giant mansion is very dark as the use of light and shadow play key factors. Amenabár is a genius when it comes to metaphors and the use of light and shadow in his film are exactly that, a giant metaphor. Most of the film takes place within dark rooms and dim hallways with flames of candles in lanterns as the only source of light. The audience is kept in the dark throughout the movie and it is not until we reach the explanatory twist that sunlight symbolizing knowledge pours into the house and our minds.
I always wondered why the ghosts in haunted house movies only appeared when the room was dark or it was nighttime. Here Amenabár is generous enough to provide us with a reason for the film’s dark atmosphere. We learn that the children suffer from an incurable illness known as xeroderma pigmentosum preventing them from any direct exposure to sunlight. If the pores of their skin meet any such exposure, the result will be a severe outburst that will lead to their death. Ironically, when the children finally reach “the light” or knowledge of the truth behind the intruders, they end up dead in that we discover they are ghosts.
What impresses me most each time I watch ‘The Others’ is that the style and substance complement each other creating a visually beautiful movie with enough substance to merit repeated viewings. Studying the film shot by shot, I discovered a master in control of every frame. Each scene is part of a whole and every shot is there for a reason. Allow me to point out examples in the film to support my gutsy statement.
We are given a time frame when Grace explains to the servants that the postman has not passed by in a week, that it’s been a week of silence as the birds stopped singing, and that the fog lasted a week. Therefore, it is safe to say, they have been dead not knowing it for a week from where the film picks up. The fog plays an important role here as Grace attempts to walk through it seeking a priest to rid the mansion of the “ghosts”. However, since they are dead, Grace and her children are tied to that house and the fog prevents them from going beyond a certain point. Of course, a first time viewer does not discover that until after a second or third viewing. Look at the shot below where Amenabár expresses this entrapment visually.
‘The Others’ is full of such expressionistic shots. The most famous scene in the film is when Anne wearing a new white dress plays with her puppets. Grace having left her daughter in that room, later returns where Anne still wearing the dress continues to play with her puppet. Only this time she is an old woman. The scene is both unsettling and disturbing yet there is more to it than meets the eye. We later learn that the old woman is a medium who was at one point possessed unintentionally by Anne. This is why Anne takes on the form of the old woman earlier in the picture. Now look at this shot, which takes place before the viewer discovers any of this.
Anne in her communion dress plays with a puppet. The puppet is an old woman and Anne is in total control of that puppet/old woman. Again, a visual representation of what is happening.
‘The Others’ is full of such hints. Not all are visual; some are contained in the dialogue. For instance, after Grace shouts at Anne for misbehaving, Anne starts to breath unevenly. “Stop breathing like that”, Grace tells her. The breathing only gets louder and Grace gets mad and screams, “Stop breathing!” This is a subtle reference to the day Grace went mad suffocating her children using a pillow causing them to “stop breathing”. Later on, this subtle reference to the cause of death happens once again, only this time with Nicholas. As the children hide in the cupboard, Nicholas gasps for air and Anne asks him to “stop breathing like that” or they will get caught. The migraines Grace suffers from throughout the movie may refer to her cause of death, using a gun to blow her brains out.
One scene that caught my attention is when Grace rushes up the house and gets the shotgun. Before she cocks it, there is a déjà-vu expression on her face. It is as if she has done this before. This only shows the dedication Kidman had to that performance.
The twist in ‘The Others’ as many of us know is a big one. The entire picture builds up to that twist. That does not mean after the unraveling of the twist the movie becomes less watchable. In fact, it is the exact opposite of that for the entire film supports the ending and part of the fun is to catch all the indicators a second, third, or fourth time around. How can we appreciate the lines of Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flangan), the head servant, having watched the movie only once? At one point she tells Grace that sometimes the “death of a loved one can lead people to do the strangest things.” It is such well thought out lines, perfectly composed shots and complementary scenes that makes ‘The Others’ a ghost story unlike any other.
I am aware that calling this film the greatest ghost story of all time is a bold statement. I have seen ‘The Haunting’ and ‘The Innocents’. Both are excellent haunted house films and had great influence on this 2001 movie. However, ‘The Others’ never fails to impress me, more so than the other two, most because of its depth. I am also aware of the fact that many will pan me for these statements. The great Roger Ebert often says, a critic has to be true to his feelings and not merely follow the general consensus of critics. This is how I felt about what I consider a masterpiece of cinema and I stand by my feelings and opinion.
Memento mori or photographs of the dead is a theme eplored in ‘The Others’. Here are some spooky real life pictures of the Victorian era: