Wednesday, April 28, 2010
A second chill
This is the fourth in my Second Chances series, which runs every Tuesday. See my Second Chances label on the side for other films I've reconsidered after a second viewing.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The chill is an involuntary physiological reaction we experience while watching a movie, when either the images or the music are particularly eerie or foreboding. It essentially relies on our fear of not knowing what's going to happen, and our imagination that whatever happens will be far worse than we imagine.
It's like the physiological response of laughter, in the sense that it relies on surprise to achieve its greatest power. And, like laughter, it would stand to reason that it's not as effective on the second viewing as it would be on the first, since the element of surprise is no longer present.
Why, then, were those chills sprinting down my spine during my entire second viewing of Alejandro Amenabar's The Others?
It's a good question. I should have remembered that the scary bits in The Others are more what's suggested than what's shown, with one or two notable exceptions. Yet I watched that movie this past Sunday in a state of uncertainty about what disturbing images were about to befall me.
As you've probably guessed by its inclusion in my Second Chances series, The Others didn't really work for me the first time I saw it. At the time it came out in 2001, The Sixth Sense was already two years in the past, and M. Night Shyamalan's influence was evident in every horror/thriller you saw. The (spoilers NOW) idea of people you think are alive actually being dead was not only a Shyamalan-like twist, but it was the same exact concept as in The Sixth Sense, even if the setting was vastly different.
But it wasn't just the big reveal at the end of The Others that bothered me, as I sensed myself not liking it as much as I should before that. I think I was also bothered by the fact that the world of the film felt very small, contained, even claustrophobic, as the action was limited just to the house. Add in the fact that not very much happens in the movie, and you've got a little, claustrophobic movie running around in circles in its own tiny space.
Or so I thought at the time.
During Sunday night's second viewing, my opinion of the film was vastly upgraded. Even if I hadn't known on an intellectual level that I was liking it more, I had to trust my physiological reaction, the aforementioned chills. And even if that was due in part to the shriek of violins in the soundtrack, I can't deny that it had an effect on me, and that I found what I was watching to be quite eerie indeed.
So what changed?
I think I appreciate better now some of Amenabar's intentions. The claustrophobia and the narrative inertia, which I considered to be weaknesses of the film, are both, in fact, strengths. If you are a ghost living in purgatory, you would feel a sense of sameness in everything you do, a sense of repetition due to the fact that you can't make new experiences. And from what we understand of ghosts, they are geographically limited in their travels, which is why Nicole Kidman's character gets lost in a dense fog the one time she tries to leave the house.
I also felt an additional eerieness watching Christopher Eccleston's character returning from World War II. He's dead as well, of course, but the difference is that he knows it. This is why his depression is so great. But he recognizes that his family does not know they're dead, and he can't bring himself to tell them. And the fact that they are dead, that she smothered their children, certainly gives him an even greater emotional burden to carry with him to the next plane of existence.
I argued earlier that the chills you experience while watching a movie should be most effective on first viewing. But a movie like The Others (following in the footsteps of The Sixth Sense) has a special value during a second viewing, because it allows you to see the clues and appreciate how they are used to bring about the twist ending. On my second viewing of The Others, I felt like it was plain as day that Kidman and her children were already dead, but I didn't feel like that detracted from the movie. On the contrary. It allowed me to lose myself in the head space of their dreary world, to see the film as Amenabar's personal vision of purgatory, a beautifully appointed purgatory full of gothic imagery, longing and dread.
Amenabar is quite successful at sustaining tension and fear in this film, making us afraid even of a child's drawing of an old woman, with the number 14 written next to it for the number of times she'd seen that particular "ghost." (I'm actually getting chills just writing these words.) The Others is a brilliant example of that minimalism. However, Amenabar did need to give us something corporeal to fear, even if only to please the studio, and that particular scene is quite effective as well. It's the scene where Kidman sees her daughter drawing on her hands and knees on the floor, only it's not her daughter -- it's the face of an old woman in the child's body. If The Others was hurt at the time for following The Sixth Sense, in my personal estimation, then at least it was ahead of the many films that have depicted scary children who speak in tongues in the decade since then.
Lastly I want to praise the three servants in the mansion, who we discover have been dead for over 50 years. The way they glide across the screen, coming toward a helpless Kidman and family, dark shapes with blank faces, is exquisitely scary. Amenabar got that just right, making us fear them without having to go for some kind of inorganic payoff, where they morph into screaming monsters. Their slack faces alone are scary enough.
Second Chance Verdict, The Others: A chilling nightmare and a unique vision.