A ny film that begins with the words "Are you sitting comfortably?" will not, you can bet, be remotely cosy. These words, accompanied by twinkly- creepy nursery music, are the first ominous surprise in The Others, the supernatural story from Alejandro Amenbar: for a start, who knew that a Spanish director-writer would be familiar with Listen with Mother?
The Others is a curious international hybrid - bankrolled by Miramax, executive-produced by Tom Cruise, made by an almost entirely Spanish crew, and Anglophile in its references. A runaway success both in Spain and the US, this fabulously wayward project is intelligent, entertaining and wholly classical in cut. Whether it's original is another matter. In many ways, it's far less original than Amenabar's first two films, Tesis - a neurotic thriller about snuff movies - and the barmy, labyrinthine fantasy Open My Eyes. By contrast, The Others is a straight genre exercise with a powerful air of deja vu about it. And yet in stories like this, deja vu can actually be an advantage, bolstering the overall sense of the uncanny.
Amenabar, a true Hitchcockian control freak who also wrote the film's music, has devised a sombre, rather august affair - no spare body parts wielded here. The chills are strictly on a psychological, even metaphysical level, and the atmosphere is as thick and chilly as the fog that surrounds the Old Dark House in which nervous young mother Grace (Nicole Kidman) lives with her two children in Jersey in 1945. Her husband (Christopher Eccleston) has not yet returned from the war, and the children - tremulous, pallid things played by Alakina Mann and James Bentley - are kept in darkness because they suffer from extreme sensitivity to light. So, at any rate, Grace explains to three domestics who come wandering out of the mists after her own staff have inexplicably "vanished into thin air".
A damnably odd business from the start, then, but the brilliance of Amenabar's strategy is that we can't easily gauge where the oddness lies. What makes The Others so unnerving is that we never quite know whom we ought to be afraid of - the enigmatic servants, the troglodyte children, or Grace herself, with her fragile nerves and morbid streak of hellfire Catholicism? Or should we worry more about the unseen interlopers who make their presence made with a classic repertoire of creaks, thuds, slamming doors and nocturnal Chopin recitals?
Like the best ghost stories, the film itself is haunted by genre history, with elements of Don't Look Now, The Haunting (the spare Sixties original, not the recent digital funfair of a remake) and The Innocents, Jack Clayton's adaptation of The Turn of the Screw - although The Others is as much MR James as Henry James. …