Chilling Me Softly

Five current thrillers—The Others, The Deep End, Session 9, Audition, and Cure—can’t top the horror of Cage and Cruz in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. 

The Others
Directed by Alejandro Amenábar
Dimension Films

Session 9
Directed by Brad Anderson
U.S.A. Films

The Deep End
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Fox Searchlight

Directed by Takashi Miike
Metro Tartan

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cowboy Booking International

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
Directed by John Madden
Universal Pictures

For American horror buffs, the saddest casualty of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s was the slow, suggestive spook tale, which was largely supplanted by special-effects-laden spectacles: big-budget sound and light shows (Poltergeist [1982]), splattery gore-athons (The Evil Dead [1982]), and oddly transmuted buddy/vigilante thrillers (Ghost [1990]). The exceptions, among them Frank LaLoggia’s Lady in White (1988), were ignored by audiences weaned on the gross and the grosser. But after the summer of 1999 (The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, the current cable-staple Stir of Echoes) and last year’s dumb but frightening What Lies Beneath, it may be said that the pendulum has swung back—and the pit’s not far behind. Here again is the moody, slow-building chiller, with its shadows, hypnotic silences, and that peculiar Gothic/Freudian compulsion to bury and then exhume.

Which brings me to The Others, an eerie little tone poem rooted in grief and dislocation, a minor-key ghost story with major jolts. It doesn’t have the narrative invention or the emotional range of such neurasthenic classics as The Innocents (1961) or The Haunting (1963), but it’s unnerving enough to mention in the same icy breath. It’s a bit of good news in these, er, dispiriting times.

This year’s head case, Grace (Nicole Kidman), waits with her children (James Bentley, Alakina Mann), in a mansion on the Isle of Jersey for her husband to return from the World War II front. The casting of Kidman is inspired. A tense actress, hard-working but too squeezed to be much fun, she plays a woman who is equally brittle and driven. Convinced that her children have developed an allergy to sunlight, the devoutly religious young mother keeps them submerged in gloom, bringing them out of their room only to eat or study, and only then if the doors to other rooms (with their malignant rays) are closed and locked.

Grace is a deeply unimaginative woman and so emotionally constricted that she has no resources to cope with the fact that her husband might be dead. “Mummy went … mad,” says her daughter, referring to an incident that no one wants to discuss. Grace’s hysteria might be connected to the enigmatic trio of servants—among them Fionnula Flanagan—who show up on the doorstep in response to a want ad that was never mailed; and it might be connected to the furniture that clunks, the doors that open and shut, and the “intruders” whom only the daughter claims to see, among them a wailing little boy and an eyeless crone. All we know for sure is that something’s not right with the world.

The less you know going in the better, but even if someone spoils the surprises … I mean, I saw the ending a mile away and couldn’t have jumped higher. The most discomfiting thing in The Others isn’t a human, a ghost, or even a place. It’s the otherwordly light. The Spanish director, Alejandro Amenábar, has a monochromatic, Dutch Masters palette—deep blacks, oaky browns, chalk complexions, the palest of yellows. Sometimes the light is blue-white—like Flanagan’s hair, which practically glows. Watch the colors on a stained-glass window wake up when the curtains are thrown to see what you—and the trapped souls on screen—have been missing.

Maybe it was the humidity, but in the wake of The Others I couldn’t wait to check out the rest of the shockers in town. “Chill me to the bone!” I commanded. Two days later, I felt I’d seen enough dank, crumbling corridors and heard enough subterranean rumbles to last a lifetime and maybe an afterlife, too. The hardest to sit through is Session 9, which is wall-to-wall dank. Set in a vast, abandoned mental hospital that preys on the psyches of asbestos-removal workers, it’s evocative enough to suggest what Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows might have been if it had been less literal-minded. Session 9 successfully screws with your head, no small achievement—but the final illuminations (people have demons, a mind is a terrible thing to lose) are a poor return on nearly two hours of ear-buckling, eye-stabbing incoherence.

Almost as disappointing is The Deep End, which some of my colleagues have praised to the heavens. The movie, based on a novel by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding that also inspired Max Ophuls’The Reckless Moment, has a cool, glassy appeal—but then, so does a fish tank. The new title doesn’t quite make sense since the heroine (Tilda Swinton) travels the length of Lake Tahoe with the corpse of her son’s gay lover so that she can dump it not in the deep end but the shallowest, most accessible spot. Did she want the body to be found, or is she an idiot? No clue from the writer-directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who also stage the early turning point (the lover’s death) so obliquely that I’m still not sure what happened. The confusion obscures what might be a great thriller motif: that no one sees the whole picture, that everyone gets everything wrong and is left with crippling doubts about who has done what to whom and why. Swinton is good enough to take your mind off the not-too-compelling ambiguities. Her face seems at first like an albino mask—starched, bleached, red-eyed. But she’s got a hard/soft, fire/ice thing that’s very alluring. She has a deep end—the movie doesn’t.

The best things I saw were two Japanese horror pictures, Audition and Cure, neither of which you should go to on a full stomach. The first, directed by Takashi Miike, is a graphic lesson in what happens when you treat women as objects, even objects of reverence. A very nice widower is persuaded by a pal to hold an audition for a nonexistent movie—this to help him find the right woman to overcome his loneliness. His heart goes out to a bit of damaged goods, a former ballet dancer who had to rethink her life after an accident. Willowy, smooth-skinned, elaborately polite, she is the perfect Japanese ingénue—until she rises wraithlike in the frame to wreak the kind of vengeance on behalf of her sex that would make Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction gulp and plead the man’s case. During the ghastly, surreal climax, I had fun closing one eye and with the other watching various ashen older men stumble toward the exit.

It’s a mistake to take Audition—or any great horror picture—too literally. We’re talking metaphorical splatter. Metaphorical, too, is the evil in Cure, a grave, magnificently creepy thriller directed by the veteran Japanese shockmeister Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation). I can’t wait to see the rest of his oeuvre. This picture, made in 1997 but most prominently featured in a traveling Kurosawa retrospective, is a serial-killer mystery made in the shadow of The X-Files, of David Fincher’s tour-de-force Seven, and of the inexplicable gas attack in the Tokyo subway. Hitherto obedient people suddenly act on their deepest, most buried impulses, which here take the form of slashing an “X” into the chests of loved ones, co-workers, and even strangers. The detective protagonist soon realizes that he’s up against not a person but a sort of psychic enabler that resists killing. The last couple of shots are head-scratchers (I had to have them explained to me), but the film transcends its murkiness and eats into the mind. Cure is what ails you.

Probably the most horrifying stuff I’ve seen all week are the love scenes between Nicolas Cage as an Italian soldier and Penélope Cruz as a headstrong Greek medical student in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The movie is more Miramax Mediterranean—period, big-budget, lushly romantic Oscar-bait about enemies who fall in love on a Greek island and end up taking on the Nazis. (The mandolin music helps remind them of their common humanity.) It’s from a wry, teeming novel, but director John Madden (or someone) has left out a lot of connecting material, so Cruz seems to go for Cage only because it says so in the script. I don’t really get Cruz’s appeal: Her face—both beautiful and funny-looking—is arresting, but once you’ve been arrested there’s nothing much to see. Cage talks with his hands and does the worst Italian accent I’ve ever heard by an actor of Italian descent. Didn’t Madden—who can be a pretty terrific actor’s director—see that his leading man—who can be a pretty terrific actor—was stinking up the screen? The cast is so big that you sometimes see real Greeks, although they’re usually whispering darkly to one another about characters played by the English, American, and Spanish stars. One way to make sure that the leads in a period movie transcend time and place is to let them act modern and look totally out of place.