Unreal estate

The Others takes the smart route to haunted houses

Movie studios make horrific decisions on a routine basis, so it's heartening to see filmmakers who learn the right lessons. The Others understands that to be a chilling haunted mansion movie, a moody and well-constructed script like The Sixth Sense is far more valuable than computer-generated special effects and gory violence like the remake of The Haunting.

Occasionally contrived and ponderous, The Others may not be in the same league as the original Haunting or The Sixth Sense. Nevertheless, Chilean writer-director Alejandro Amen'bar, making his first English-language film, puts a spooky punchline on a strange and compelling premise.

The film begins with three enigmatic servants (Fionnula Flanagan, Elaine Cassidy, Eric Sykes) arriving at a remote mansion on England's Jersey Coast in 1945. Grace (Nicole Kidman), the lady of the house, informs them that the house is deserted except for her and the two children: Her husband (Christopher Eccleston) is MIA following the war and the previous servants disappeared without warning.

Grace lays down a bizarre set of ground rules, in which heavy curtains must be drawn across the windows, and if you enter a room, you must lock the door behind you before unlocking and opening another. These precautions are on account of the children, who are so photosensitive they get sores when exposed to sunlight. Kept in perpetual shadow, the house also lacks electricity and a telephone, and seems to be surrounded by a thick, permanent fog bank.

Of the two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) proves more rebellious and precocious, while younger brother Nicholas (James Bentley) is more introverted and easily scared. Bentley's face is frequently so etched with pain and concern that he makes Haley Joel Osment look like Bart Simpson.

Eerie things begin happening, with strange noises coming from seemingly sealed corners of the house, or light shining on the other side of locked doors. Anne claims to have repeatedly seen a little boy named Victor and a glassy-eyed old woman, whom she draws in an unnerving illustration. Searching the house for intruders, Grace comes across other pieces to the mystery, like an album of photographs of the fresh corpses of the house's past occupants.

One of the engrossing and refreshing things about The Others is that at first you're not sure where to put your sympathies. The children clearly need to be protected, but will the heroine be the kindly but mysterious Mrs. Mills, or the vulnerable but clearly unstable Grace? Is the house being occupied by supernatural beings, or is someone trying to drive Grace insane? Amen'bar seems open to all possibilities. One especially intense scene has Grace and the children waking up at dawn to discover all of the curtains are gone.

With so many scenes illuminated by candlelight, The Others is the kind of film that cinematographers dream about. A scene with Grace lost in thick fog — only to have a surprising reunion with another character — is especially well shot. The Others pays equally close attention to its sound effects, picking up every ominous squeak and creak. But when creepy stuff happens, inappropriately bombastic music can intrude like a hand grenade. If Amen'bar weren't himself credited as composer, I'd think the soundtrack was imposed by a studio too eager to emphasize the scares.

The film's first words are a children's version of the Creation story, and Amen'bar provides a recurring motif of Grace as a devout Christian who attacks superstition. When she thinks Anne is lying about seeing ghosts, she tells her daughter to "ask the Virgin for forgiveness" and makes her recite Bible verses. In moments of menace, Kidman proves equally adroit with a shotgun as a Bible, and she credibly portrays Grace as a loving mother, nevertheless, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Lately supernatural films tend to end on a twist, and The Others builds to two, with one more unexpected than the other. It's always fun when a film's resolution makes you realize that dialogue from earlier scenes had an additional meaning other than the obvious. The Others may not be a new classic, but it has enough mood and suspense to satisfy someone seeking a good "boo!"??