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The Ghost and Ms. Kidman
by Lucius Shepard
August 24th, 2001

Some years back I was approached by a TV producer who offered to pay me what then seemed decent money to come up with some story ideas for a hit cop series. He said they were tired of doing stories centering on coke dealers and wanted to take the show in a new direction. I spent a couple of afternoons working up a number of non-drug-oriented plots, all of which the man said he loved. He paid me and gushed about how eager he was to get the ideas into script. Then he went out and shot twenty-two shows about coke dealers for the new season.

Akin to this is the Hollywood tradition of bringing in foreign directors to create a fresh look for an old idea or a sequel. What generally happens in this circumstance is that the director is hamstrung with a horrible script, valiantly tries to give the project a fresh take, and is thwarted at every turn by the producers who hired him. Their attitude, you see, has changed. They now are concerned that this interloper will screw up their cash cow and often once the film has been finished, the producers—most of whom are blessed with the creative sensibilities of a rutabaga—will re-edit the picture themselves, confident that their commercial genius will compensate for a lack of talent and craftsmanship. Recent Hollywood history is strewn with mutant horrors engendered by such unholy unions. For instance, Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) went over the regrettable Mulholland Falls; Jean Genet (Delicatessen) got screen credit but should not be blamed for the franchise-killing Alien 4; Jocelyn Moorehouse (Proof) wound up muffled by How to Make an American Quilt; P.J. Hogan went from the vitality of Muriel's Wedding to the malaise of My Best Friend's Wedding; Ruy Barreto (Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands) was defeated by One Tough Cop, starring Steven Baldwin; John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark, the creator of Chinese Ghost Story, were all saddled with awful pictures featuring the Muscles from Brussels, Jean Claude Van Damme . . . To avoid adding their names to what has become a long and woeful list, some European directors who want to achieve an American success have begun staying at home and shooting their movies in English, hoping that this way they will preserve their artistic integrity. But there is a further pitfall they fail to take into account—distributors frequently elect to recut foreign films themselves, sometimes for no other reason than the film is a bit long for their tastes, and they have been known on occasion to make their cuts by simply removing a reel. According to reliable sources, it is into this pit that Alberto Amen�bar's The Others appears to have fallen.

Ghost stories have had a minor cinematic renaissance in the United States since the runaway success of The Sixth Sense, and probably will continue to do so because of the subsequent good box-office performance of Robert Zemeckis' What Lies Beneath, which—though it ranks several notches above Ghost Dad—barely caused a quiver in the needle on my Mediocre-Meter. It is a trend that does not promise great movies—Hollywood will milk it dry by process of repetition and imitation, until the trend will dissipate in a flurry of horrid remakes. One imagines the puerile terrors of a Jennifer Love Hewitt version of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir or two hours passed under the insipid spell of Matt Damon's Harvey. But even if the substance of one film resonates with that of another, it is worth our notice when a talented director chooses to take on such a project.

Alejandro Amen�bar burst onto the scene with the outstanding Spanish SF thriller Open Your Eyes, one of the best science fiction films in recent years (granted, this is not saying very much, but Eyes is well worth a viewing, and far preferable, I would imagine, to the Hollywood remake coming this fall, Vanilla Sky, which stars the ineluctable Tom Cruise). The source material for his current film is Henry James' novella of psychological ambiguity and—perhaps—ghosts, "The Turn of the Screw," which Jack Clayton turned into an excellent picture back in the 60s: The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr. In The Others, Amen�bar eschews ambiguity and steps away from the source material, attempting to make what is essentially a variant version of The Sixth Sense. Shortly after the end of World War II, Grace (Nicole Kidman), a young wife whose husband (Christopher Eccleston) is presumed dead, missing in action, is kept busy raising her two children in a lonely fogbound house on the Isle of Jersey. The children, Nicholas and Anne, have—we are told—an allergy to light that requires the windows be curtained during the day. The manor's servants have apparently fled, and as the film opens, their replacements—the housekeeper and nanny, Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan); her mute assistant, Lydia; and Mr. Tuttle, the gardener—begin their term of employment. It soon becomes clear that there is something sinister about the new servants, and further, that something sinister is occupying the house. Ghosts . . . at least so we are led to believe. Grace is initially resistant to the idea of ghosts but Anne claims to have seen them and creates a drawing of the family she believes is haunting the manor: mom, dad, son, and granny. But as the thumpings, slammed doors, mysterious footsteps, midnight piano recitals, and various other disturbing occurrences multiply, Grace becomes a believer. Terrified, she undertakes a trip to town to seek counsel from a priest, but before she can get very far from the house, she spies her husband emerging from the fog—he is apparently just now returning from the war and is traumatized by his experiences. This causes Grace to put her concerns aside and to return with her husband to the manor. But her happiness is short-lived, for following a brief and unsettling reunion, the husband wanders off again, saying that he must return to the front.

By this point in the film, it is obvious that the new servants are somehow involved with all the supernatural doings, and what is really going on should be apparent to everyone, especially if you have seen The Sixth Sense. Thus when the ending arrives, it falls rather flat. This is not to say that the movie is an absolute failure. Amen�bar is a talented director and the film contains a number of genuine frights, establishes an unnerving depth of suspense, and is potently atmospheric. His framing of Kidman is especially notable. For much of the film, the camera appears to be sculpting her out of the gloom and shadow, lighting her porcelain features so that at times her face has the aspect of a cameo emerging from dark water, drawing to our attention her delicate and agitated facial gestures, flared nostrils, lip quivers, nervous tremors, and so forth, literally painting a portrait in time of a woman who is tightly wound, close to madness, and who—so her daughter claims—has had a psychotic episode in the recent past. Kidman's features are not so expressive as those of some other actresses (Emily Watson being the current heavyweight champion in this regard), and she does not offer the magnitude of talent that Deborah Kerr brought to the central role in The Innocents. Nonetheless, her relative woodenness works to the film's advantage, being apropos to Grace's type, a fragile upper-class British wife, and if Kidman does not exactly light up the screen, she photographs beautifully and is sufficiently skilled to be convincing.

Ultimately, perhaps because we have watched The Sixth Sense and therefore pick up on the clues more readily than otherwise we might, The Others does not surprise us. But as I've suggested, there may be more pertinent reasons for the film's flatness than what might seem on first glance to be poor directorial choices. The film contains a number of cuts that do not look to be the work of a professional. Sudden jumps and shifts of scene that are scarcely commensurate with Amen�bar's technical facility and eye. There are also several logical flaws and unexplained events that seem equally un-Amen�barlike. His previous movies have been logically tight, smoothly edited, and it's difficult to believe that he would mutilate his own film to the extent demonstrated by the print I watched. Since The Others checks in at about two hours, and since certain distributors have a reputation (deserved or not, one can only surmise) for hacking up films in order to fit them into two-hour slots, thereby enabling more shows per day, which translates into more money . . . given all that, it's not inconceivable that we in the United States haven't seen the entirety of Amen�bar's film. This would explain a great deal, including why what is little more than a cameo appearance by Christopher Eccleston, one of Britain's most accomplished actors, merits second-listing in the credits. The missing material may well have provided emotional information or story details that would have made the ending feel less truncated and more satisfying, but we won't know that for certain until the Spanish version of the film is released on DVD and video.

That this sort of butchery has been done previously and frequently should not be in question. For instance, I am convinced that Stanley's Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut, widely trumpeted to be Kubrick's final edit, was mucked with by an idiot wearing moonglasses and listening to Brittany Spears on a Walkman. Anyone who has paid close attention to Kubrick's other films knows he would never have made such clumsy scene cuts as are evidenced by the print that was circulated in theaters. Had Kubrick lived to oversee its release, Eyes Wide Shut would surely not have been a great picture, but it would have been internally consistent—all Kubrick's scripts were models of internal consistency. Whoever it was that hacked up Eyes Wide Shut may be in question, but I could easily come up with a list of films edited by distributors with no regard for quality that would be far longer than this column. What astonishes me is not that the practice goes unnoticed by the public, but rather that it has been ignored by and so given the tacit blessing of the critical press. It would seem that these tastemakers, who know what is happening, might feel compelled if not by conscience, then by professional ethics, to report on the practice, which must be at odds with—if not completely contrary to—at least some minor consumer regulation. But no. Musty concerns such as journalistic integrity and an artist's right to determine the presentation of his or her intellectual property do not, apparently, serve them.

I have seen The Others reviewed as being derivative of The Sixth Sense, but while there are similarities between the two movies, I find this dismissal myopic and simplistic. Amen�bar is a director with his own peculiar intelligence and style. I seriously doubt he set out to ape The Sixth Sense. It is obvious that he did not intend a big surprise ending—he offers so many clues to the mystery, it's evident that he wanted the audience in on the secret by the movie's mid-point so they could observe what he was really trying to do. I believe the film mutts have been re-edited by an incompetent who wanted to cut the running time and to shape the picture so it more closely resembled The Sixth Sense: this would be perfectly in keeping with the exercise of "commercial instincts." There are solid indicators that Amen�bar intended to make a film that would illuminate the process by which a ghost might be created, and to do so he needed to paint a character study of a ghost; and he decided that the best way to achieve both ends would be to depict a ghost who comes to a gradual recognition of her condition. The sad thing is that, very likely, most of his audience will never know whether or not he succeeded.