Troy Media – by Glenn Wilkinson
Films reflect our collective consciousness, the way that we as a culture see our world and ourselves. And, we love to frighten ourselves in order to feel alive and to connect with others.
For me, gore films that shock and make us jump are predictable and formulaic. They work because we expect them to work. And in some ways, they allow us to fulfil our roles as protector/protected on date-nights with our partners. But subtle, spine-tingling stories of ghosts and the dead always seem to be more appropriate at Halloween than excessive blood and chainsaw murders.
Imagination can be truly scary
It is, however, the film that preys on our imagination that is truly scary. Those are the ghostly stories that don’t rely on tawdry musical scores to create tension or on well-worn tropes of teenagers splitting up in search of the mysterious.
One of the best-known films in this genre is the 1999 film, The Sixth Sense, where Bruce Willis stars as a child-psychologist who tries to work out Haley Joel Osment’s particular gift for seeing dead people. While this film is effective and a very good psychological-thriller, it is more philosophical than scary.
Another psychological thriller, but with the more familiar trope of an investigative team of sceptics, is The Haunting (1963). In this film, a group of people assemble at Hill House to investigate the noisy and ghostly manifestations of the dead, who are not quiet, that have driven away others. The team involves an anthropologist, Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), a lonely woman, Eleanor Vance (Julie Harris), who has experienced these things before, an empathetic woman named Theodora (Clare Bloom), who could look into the future, and the man who will inherit the house, Luke Sannerson (Russ Tamblyn). The house is the central focus of the film and soon it becomes obvious that it is quite alive.
A work that combines some of these facets, and is in many ways far more frightening, is the Spanish film from 2001, The Others. It stars a very impressive Nicole Kidman as Grace Stewart, a woman who moved into a big house on the island of Jersey with her two children, Anne and Nicholas (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) at the close of the Second World War. She is waiting for her husband, Charles (Christopher Eccleston) who is missing and has not yet returned from the war.
Anne and Nicholas have a strange photosensitive disease, which means that they cannot go outside in the daytime and that all the curtains must be drawn. Grace discovers one day that all the servants have mysteriously left without a word and dispatches a letter to the village to hire more. Three eccentric servants arrive: a housekeeper, Mrs. Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), a gardener, Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes), and a mute girl, Lydia (Elaine Cassidy).
Strange things begin to happen: voices are heard, drawings are made, furniture is mysteriously moved, doors are unlocked, and the curtains disappear, provoking terror in the light-sensitive children. Victorian photographs of the dead are discovered and a trio of gravestones that the children stumbled upon in the garden are significant in unlocking the truth about the mysteries occurring in the house.
Terror ensues and Grace defends her beloved children from deadly horrors. And yet, the mystery does not end there, and we are treated to a delightful twist that should not be given in any detail here, but fully explains the identity of the ‘Others’.
Twists and turns
The important thing about this film is not so much the shock and the horror, but the gradual realization of what’s actually happening and our being led along through twists and turns in the plot. While we are in a world that appears to be recognizable with strange events explained away, we realize that this world is slightly off-centre. Grace is a sympathetic character, though she displays erratic and, for her children, rather worrying behaviour. This is a collection of characters and a setting that is slightly askance and the oddities and frightening events only get explained at the end, where a touching, though rather haunting, conclusion is revealed.
These films, particularly, The Others, are for those people who don’t particularly like jumpy horror films with too much blood and guts, but who enjoy intelligent, cerebral, thrillers.Cast: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, and Alakina Mann Director: Alejandro Amenábar Written by: Alejandro Amenábar Running time: 104 minutes
Glenn R. Wilkinson is an adjunct assistant professor in the History Department at the University of Calgary.