There are horror movies like The Silence of the Lambs or Alien that make you scream, clutch your date, or cover your eyes. Less typical is the film that draws you in so subtly you’re almost unaware of being frightened until you feel the hair on the back of your neck suddenly rise. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (adapted from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the mother of all modern ghost stories) produces that kind of atavistic fear response. So too does Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, which parallels The Innocents‘ premise of a woman desperately trying to save the two children in her care from the hellhounds that have invaded their house.
High-strung and devoutly religious, Grace (a blond Nicole Kidman, looking like a more attenuated Grace Kelly) lives in a huge Victorian house on the Isle of Jersey with her daughter and son. World War II is nearing its end, and although Grace’s husband has been reported as missing in action, she refuses to accept that he’s not coming home. Because the children are afflicted with a mysterious allergy to light, Grace spends most of her time frantically racing from room to room, closing doors and curtains against the sun, only to find that someone has carelessly opened them again. Are the peculiarly condescending new servants to blame? Or, as her daughter claims, are there strangers living secretly among them?
Beneath the supernatural goings-on is an au courant tale of motherhood, madness, and religious repression. While occasionally using the children as foils, Amenábar filters most of the narrative through Grace’s perception. From beginning to end, Grace exists in a state of barely suppressed hysteria punctuated by moments of abject terror, all of which Kidman registers with extreme delicacy. We’ve seen her play this kind of trapped character before—most notably in The Portrait of a Lady—but not with such sustained, unnerved intensity. This is one scary movie, not because we see ghosts or monsters, but because Kidman makes us feel her fear as our own.
A less effective haunted-house film, Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is set in an abandoned Massachusetts psychiatric hospital. From the outside, the building resembles The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel, and Anderson steals a few tricks from Kubrick, including a jolting offscreen sound that suggests a two-ton steel door slamming shut. In the process of removing asbestos from the crumbled interior, a five-man construction crew finds itself vulnerable to a more ephemeral hazardous waste: the traces left by the building’s former inhabitants (from lobotomy screws to interview tapes with victims of multiple-personality disorder). As he proved in The Darien Gap and Next Stop Wonderland, Anderson is at home in working-class New England. But the script for Session 9 is so underwritten that even such lively character actors as David Caruso, Peter Mullan, and Brendan Sexton III are left stranded. Shooting in Hi-Def video allowed Anderson to experiment with lighting effects that would have been too much of a cost risk on film. With all the asbestos wrapping, the billowing drop cloths, and the men plodding around in safety gear, the film doesn’t lack for a look, but that’s pretty much all it has to recommend it.