Take M. Night Shyamalan’s great ghost story The Sixth Sense, with its restraint, deliberate pacing, puzzle-box structure, and striking architectural context.
Take away its likable, sympathetic main characters — Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, Toni Collette — who anchored the story to reality; and replace them with a cast of unsettlingly strange characters who could only exist in a ghost story.
Then re-anchor the story to reality by asking whether there are really any ghosts at all — whether apparently spectral manifestations might not in fact be no more than an unstable woman’s imaginings, or the cruel pranks of a spiteful child, or the malicious work of mysterious servants with unguessable motives. Bear in mind that moviegoers are increasingly wise to Sixth-Sense style tricks, and will carefully analyze each of these characters in turn, trying to figure out what might not be as it seems.
Make the story scarier and more unnerving than The Sixth Sense — but do it without any gory or gross imagery; almost without special effects. At the same time, don’t try for the touchingly human side of the earlier film. Tell a creepy ghost story, and tell it well. Put Nicole Kidman, a compelling actress who creates a bond with audiences even when she’s playing an off-puttingly unsympathetic character (cf. To Die For; Malice), at the center of the film.
Finally, where Indian writer-director Shyamalan’s film was devoid of religious references, suffuse the story with Catholic belief and practice. When one character suggests that "Sometimes the world of the dead gets mixed up with the world of the living," have another character point out that "The Lord would never allow such an abberation" — even if the only allowable reply to a declaration like that in a ghost story is: "There isn’t always an answer for everything."
That, not quite in a nutshell, is what Chilean writer-director Alejandro Amenábar has done in The Others, a chillingly effective haunted-house thriller that combines the spooky with the spiritual, ghostly phenomena with philosophical musings about religion, Henry James (The Turn of the Screw) with William James (The Will to Believe).
This combination doesn’t always work; more particularly, the religious stuff doesn’t ultimately pay off. As a spine-tingling ghost story, though, The Others is a superior film. Watch it, and see what was wrong with the Zemeckis/Ford/Pfeiffer flop What Lies Beneath.
"Rules and Clues" is the name of a bonus feature in the special-edition VHS/DVD release of The Sixth Sense. The Others has rules and clues, too.
The story is set in a fog-shrouded manor home on the Isle of Jersey off the coast of England in the years after World War II. There are servants who up and leave the household without warning, and others who arrive to take their place without being advertised for. The house is full of doors that must be kept locked at all times and curtains that must always be drawn, for the children have a rare skin condition that makes them deathly sensitive to bright light.
The house does seem haunted: There are unaccountable events and noises, and the girl, Anne (Alakina Mann), creates an eerie drawing of people she says she’s seen in the house, including a young boy named Victor and a witchy old woman with spooky eyes. (She denies, though, that she sees dead people, protesting that "ghosts wear sheets and carry chains.")
On the other hand, Anne has a creepy streak in her — she likes frightening her younger brother Nicholas (James Bentley), and, while she whispers ominously about the time Mummy "went mad," she also seems to toy her mother’s high-strung emotions, as if to make it come true. On the other hand, perhaps Mummy really did go mad.
Grace (Kidman), the mother, discovers a macabre photo album, and we look over her shoulder at old photos of the house’s previous inhabitants, searching for anyone who matches Anne’s drawings. The clues don’t appear to add up; no one theory seems to account for all the data, and the film holds surprises even for shrewd viewers with an idea of what’s going on.
Meanwhile, it’s all really creepy, and, if you are at all susceptible to this sort of thing, at times your heart will be in your throat (I have no history of biting my nails, yet at one point in this film I found myself doing just that). Those accustomed to CGI monsters and generous helpings of fake gore will find The Others intolerably slow-moving and boring; but Amenábar knows that, just as the rule for good writing is "Show, don’t tell," the rule for powerful cinematography is "Suggest, don’t show."
Amenábar’s dialogue is laden with more Catholic-related musings and discussion than any major studio release since Kevin Smith’s Dogma; and it’s not easy to see how all this theology fits into the ghost-story plot. While educated Catholics and other knowledgable Christians may find these discussions intriguing, other viewers are likely to walk away confused about what Catholics do and don’t believe.
In one early scene, Grace reads to her children about the child martyrs Justus and Pastor — a story that Anne finds more amusing than edifying. "Those children were really stupid," she laughs. And if she were in the position of being required on pain of death to renounce Christ? "Inside I would have believed in Him," she says, "but I wouldn’t have told the Romans that." And Nicholas seems to agree.
"So," Grace scolds, "you both would have lied to the point of denying Christ." And she urges them to consider the consequences for the next life, threatening them with one of the "four hells": the "children’s limbo," which she describes as a place of eternal fire and torment.
Unfortunately, Grace’s catechesis is a little off — as Anne partially discovers. In a later scene, the girl calls her mother on it: "I read yesterday that limbo is only for children who haven’t been baptized — and we have!" (Of course, had Anne read a little further, she might have discovered that limbo is only theological speculation, not Catholic teaching. Furthermore, the concept of limbo is not fire and torment; it is usually thought of as perfect natural happiness.)
Still later in the film, Grace herself has reason to tell her daughter: "I don’t know whether there is any limbo — I’m no wiser than you." Yet in context, this is not exactly a triumph of Catholic dogmatics.
The film alludes to the creation account, to the expulsion from the garden, to Noah and the flood, and other events in sacred history. On all these subjects, Anne has opinions that may come oddly from a young child, though they are perfectly orthodox: "I don’t believe God created the world in seven days. Or that Noah got all those animals on one boat. Or that the Holy Spirit is a dove." Yet she seems to think that this means that the Bible is not to be trusted.
While I’m glad to see a major film take religious ideas seriously, The Others lacks balance and perspective. Religion is questioned, but is not allowed to answer. Despite her name, Grace is very far from a beacon of divine light, either in her brittle theology or in her stern comportment.
Most of all, the film’s ending constitutes a complete nonanswer to the religious questions it’s been raising. In fact, the ending of the areligious The Sixth Sense is ironically closer in spirit to Christian eschatology than the ending of the Catholicism-drenched The Others. Of course, no ghost story could ever be truly compatible with Christian eschatology; and in imaginative entertainment, as Amenábar reminds us, "There isn’t always an answer for everything." Still, an entertainment that won’t or can’t at least give an issue a fair shake should perhaps be more cautious about so pointedly and extensively raising it.
A ubiquitous tagline and a mind-bending climactic twist made M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit The Sixth Sense a monster sensation — yet this deliberately paced, psychologically sensitive paranormal thriller is much more than a one-trick puzzle movie, and holds up well to multiple viewings.
But when the plot then descends into a Lethal Weapon-type action-chase scene, it’s clearly gone off the rails: a proper ghost story has an entirely different atmosphere from a Lethal Weapon action flick.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.