The first time I saw The Others I was floored by the experience. It was released in early August of 2001, and it was hot on the heels, at least in my mind, of great horror films like The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project so I think it is safe to guess that most moviegoers were expecting some kind of twist ending. I know I was. And I was still shocked by the ending! But even watching the film over a decade later I still get an uneasy feeling in my gut.
So that makes me ask myself, why?
A lot of the reason the film was so successful was all the misdirection. We have the servants who seem to know more about what’s going on than they should. The children claiming that they see people who aren’t there. Strange noises. Doors that seem to unlock themselves. A book of dead people photographed before burial. Even the setting of an old house isolated from the rest of the world points toward a typical haunting setup. In short, every phenomenon is pointed away from the truth, toward the outside. Because that’s where the terror originates in typical haunted stories, from the outside, from forces that use the house as a means to get into the characters.
I believe this was how writer/director Alejandro Amenábar was able to pull off his unexpected ending. Of course, none of it would have been possible without the tremendous performance of Nicole Kidman.
The I-don’t-know-I’m-a-ghost theme was pulled straight from The Sixth Sense, but due to the setup and the character development that follows we don’t expect this. From the start, there is clearly something a bit off with Kidman’s character. She is obsessed with her children to the point where the outside world doesn’t seem to matter, doesn’t exist. She constantly puts their safety as the top priority in her life to the point where she even battles sunlight to keep her children safe. Because of this character setup, Amenábar was able to achieve a truly horrific ending. He takes Kidman’s singular goal of keeping her children safe then turns it against her, thereby, according to Robert Bloch, doing what all great horror does, reveal the truth under her mask of motherly love.
In an article in Many Genres One Craft, Mary SanGiovanni argues “that character— I dare say more than plot— is the key element of a horror story.” This movie is a terrific example of that concept. The plot, which as we said teems with misdirection, takes a backseat to Kidman’s character. Events lean one way then the other until we’re not sure what’s going on, but our instincts tell us that it somehow revolves around Kidman. That is why the ending is so satisfying. Instead of a demon or a typical slasher, the terror in this film developed around a primal concept that we all hold sacred: that of a mother and the duty she has to protect her children.