Film Analysis: Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others”


          Alejandro Amenabár’s ‘The Others’ opens with a series of spooky hand drawn title shots. The last of these images is that of an old house. An excellent use of transition follows, as the hand drawn house fades into an actual house. ‘The Others’ feels like a Victorian ghost story written by Michael Cox, J. Sheridan LeFanu or Wilkie Collins. With that transition, it is as if Amenabár lifts the pages of one of these great old ghost stories directly to the screen.  

Nicole Kidman plays Grace in a performance that is not your typical take of a horror movie heroine. Kidman uses realism rather than generic acting to introduce the viewers to a flawed, emotional, and troubled woman. Grace lives with her two children in an old mansion in the middle of nowhere. Anne (Alakina Mann) is the daughter and Nicholas (James Bentley) is the younger boy. However, soon three mysterious servants arrive. Since their arrival, a series of strange incidents occur as they all discover they are not alone.

Indeed, the plot is that of a typical haunted house movie. However, ‘The Others’ is much more than that, for it is quite possibly the greatest ghost story ever told on film. This is largely due to all the thought and attention Amenabár gave to his picture. This is one of those rare occasions where the director had total control over his material. Besides taking the helm, Amenabár also wrote the perfectly contained screenplay and composed the haunting yet emotional score.  

The director uses metaphors and German Expressionism to tell his story. Like many expressionistic films of the later stages of that era in German film history, the expressionism in ‘The Others’ lacks exaggeration but is still nonetheless very expressionistic. The film borrows themes of the lost genre by dealing with insanity, madness, mirrors and a dark urban setting.

 The atmosphere in the giant mansion is very dark as the use of light and shadow play key factors. Amenabár is a genius when it comes to metaphors and the use of light and shadow in his film are exactly that, a giant metaphor. Most of the film takes place within dark rooms and dim hallways with flames of candles in lanterns as the only source of light. The audience is kept in the dark throughout the movie and it is not until we reach the explanatory twist that sunlight symbolizing knowledge pours into the house and our minds.

I always wondered why the ghosts in haunted house movies only appeared when the room was dark or it was nighttime. Here Amenabár is generous enough to provide us with a reason for the film’s dark atmosphere. We learn that the children suffer from an incurable illness known as xeroderma pigmentosum preventing them from any direct exposure to sunlight. If the pores of their skin meet any such exposure, the result will be a severe outburst that will lead to their death.  Ironically, when the children finally reach “the light” or knowledge of the truth behind the intruders, they end up dead in that we discover they are ghosts.

What impresses me most each time I watch ‘The Others’ is that the style and substance complement each other creating a visually beautiful movie with enough substance to merit repeated viewings.  Studying the film shot by shot, I discovered a master in control of every frame. Each scene is part of a whole and every shot is there for a reason. Allow me to point out examples in the film to support my gutsy statement.

We are given a time frame when Grace explains to the servants that the postman has not passed by in a week, that it’s been a week of silence as the birds stopped singing, and that the fog lasted a week. Therefore, it is safe to say, they have been dead not knowing it for a week from where the film picks up. The fog plays an important role here as Grace attempts to walk through it seeking a priest to rid the mansion of the “ghosts”. However, since they are dead, Grace and her children are tied to that house and the fog prevents them from going beyond a certain point. Of course, a first time viewer does not discover that until after a second or third viewing. Look at the shot below where Amenabár expresses this entrapment visually.

‘The Others’ is full of such expressionistic shots. The most famous scene in the film is when Anne wearing a new white dress plays with her puppets. Grace having left her daughter in that room, later returns where Anne still wearing the dress continues to play with her puppet. Only this time she is an old woman. The scene is both unsettling and disturbing yet there is more to it than meets the eye. We later learn that the old woman is a medium who was at one point possessed unintentionally by Anne. This is why Anne takes on the form of the old woman earlier in the picture.  Now look at this shot, which takes place before the viewer discovers any of this.

Anne in her communion dress plays with a puppet. The puppet is an old woman and Anne is in total control of that puppet/old woman. Again, a visual representation of what is happening.

‘The Others’ is full of such hints. Not all are visual; some are contained in the dialogue. For instance, after Grace shouts at Anne for misbehaving, Anne starts to breath unevenly. “Stop breathing like that”, Grace tells her. The breathing only gets louder and Grace gets mad and screams, “Stop breathing!” This is a subtle reference to the day Grace went mad suffocating her children using a pillow causing them to “stop breathing”. Later on, this subtle reference to the cause of death happens once again, only this time with Nicholas. As the children hide in the cupboard, Nicholas gasps for air and Anne asks him to “stop breathing like that” or they will get caught. The migraines Grace suffers from throughout the movie may refer to her cause of death, using a gun to blow her brains out.

One scene that caught my attention is when Grace rushes up the house and gets the shotgun. Before she cocks it, there is a déjà-vu expression on her face. It is as if she has done this before. This only shows the dedication Kidman had to that performance.  
The twist in ‘The Others’ as many of us know is a big one. The entire picture builds up to that twist. That does not mean after the unraveling of the twist the movie becomes less watchable. In fact, it is the exact opposite of that for the entire film supports the ending and part of the fun is to catch all the indicators a second, third, or fourth time around. How can we appreciate the lines of Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flangan), the head servant, having watched the movie only once? At one point she tells Grace that sometimes the “death of a loved one can lead people to do the strangest things.” It is such well thought out lines, perfectly composed shots and complementary scenes that makes ‘The Others’ a ghost story unlike any other.

I am aware that calling this film the greatest ghost story of all time is a bold statement. I have seen ‘The Haunting’ and ‘The Innocents’. Both are excellent haunted house films and had great influence on this 2001 movie. However, ‘The Others’ never fails to impress me, more so than the other two, most because of its depth. I am also aware of the fact that many will pan me for these statements. The great Roger Ebert often says, a critic has to be true to his feelings and not merely follow the general consensus of critics. This is how I felt about what I consider a masterpiece of cinema and I stand by my feelings and opinion.

Memento mori or photographs of the dead is a theme eplored in ‘The Others’. Here are some spooky real life pictures of the Victorian era:

59 thoughts on “Film Analysis: Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others”

  1. I liked the atmosphere and the story, but it’s little too cold, distant, slow to love. It has been 9 years since I watched it in the theater and maybe It’s time to revisit. In the days of bangs and screams and blood, calm horror movie with good atmosphere is hard to find.

    ah, and here’s my Oscar prediction. English paragraph is a bit different from Korean paragraph, but it won’t be problem.


    1. I love “The Others” now much more than when I saw in theaters. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

      Very accurate predictions. We only contrast in one category. I’m glad you’re predicting “The White Ribbon” for cinematography. I had a feeling this is how it would go.


    2. In case you didn’t notice, I changed the sound mixing win to “The Hurt Locker” and the sound editing win to “Avatar”. I mixed them up the first time around.


  2. Thank you for the great insights on this fascinating film. I collect ghost stories, so the twist was not a surprise to me. There are only so many plots of ghost stories all across the centuries. My joy is in the atmosphere and what the stories and films explore about human nature. My favorite of the old masters of the genre in print is M.R. James. Give him a try.


    1. You do? I would love to hear a series of book recommendations from you. As well as film recommendation. If you don’t mind of course. I have a thing for ghost stories.


  3. I’m considering a magazine piece that will, at least briefly, cover The Others, Wael, so it’s great to read your thoughts on the film. I love your use of the memoriam portraits at the end. Excellent way to make reading the review evoke similar emotions to watching the movie!


  4. I got to see this movie last night, based on your recommendation. You’re right, I really enjoyed it! And now that you’ve pointed out things to look for, I’m sure I’ll enjoy a second viewing, as well.

    You are correct in saying that the style and substance (i.e. atmosphere) of this film is what makes it a great ghost movie. Atmosphere is what older horror movies have in spades, whereas today’s horror movies often don’t have the time or patience to create a mood, or to create interesting characters. I mean, King Kong took forty minutes out of an hour and forty minutes (or so) to build the movie to Kong’s first appearance.

    I also would place The Sixth Sense high on the list of great ghost stories on film. Both movies had twists that I didn’t see coming (though, in this film, I suspected early on that the servants were dead, and at one point wondered if Nicole Kidman’s character and her children were, but I only thought that one or the other were true, not both). Of course, armed with the knowledge that the ending supplies, we also can now understand how all of the servants could have “vanished” one night.


    1. Exactly! The “vanishing” of the servants one night a week ago, also provides us with a timeline in the sense that now we know they’ve been dead and not knowing it for a week from the behinning of the plot.

      “The Sixth Sense” is another atmospheric ghost story that I loved the first time and enjoyed a lot more on a second viewing. The best of films are those who improve upon repeated viewings or hold on to the same effect of the first. As you said with horror movies the atmosphere is the key and nowadays that’s the one thing absent from most horror films.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this masterpiece as much as I did 🙂 Like you, it kept me guessing till the very end and once I reached the end or “the truth” I looked forward for a second third and by now probably tenth viewing. I have a feeling, “The Others” will end up being regarded as one of the best horror films ever made with age and repeated viewings. I hope Amenabar returns to this genre because he seems to understand it more than most directors out there.


      1. So, I am doing a 10-page analysis paper on The Others for a horror film class. I’m sitting here re-watching scenes over and over as I type, and I noticed something that is now driving me crazy in relation to the servants who mysteriously “vanished” in the night. Like you, I too assumed that since Grace and the children have been dead for a week, then naturally the explanation is that all living people become imperceptible to the dead, therefore it appears as though every living person in the house just disappeared overnight. However, there are a couple of scenes that actually contradict this.

        The first is when Anne and Nicholas are having breakfast right after their introduction. Anne asks “Are you going to leave us too?” Mrs. Mills answers “Of course not why should I leave you? Anne replies, “The others said they wouldn’t, but they did. And then it happened.” This is when she hints at the incident where their mother went mad. But she implies that Grace went mad AFTER the servants all left.

        The other scene is when Grace’s husband returns to the house and she tries to explain to him what happened that day. Grace’s dialogue goes: “I don’t know what came over me that day. The servants had left during the night. They hadn’t the courage to tell me to my face. They knew…that I couldn’t leave the house. They knew.” This, to me, is Grace providing a justification for why she lost control over herself the way she did. She is implying that the frustration of having the servants leave so suddenly without notice added to the already mounting stress and pressure she was feeling from her husband being away and taking care of her sick children. And that THIS is why she went mad and killed them.

        Therefore, it seems to me that the servants had really up and left without notice BEFORE Grace killed the children and herself. So my question is, why DID they disappear? It is never explained.

        Sorry for the rant, but I was actually going to make a point of this in my paper before I realized the dialogue contradicted this idea. I can’t figure it out. Any insights?


  5. I agree with everything you wrote. I haven’t seen the two films you mentioned, but I definitely plan to. The Others struck me as a ghost story with a lot of heart to it. Nicole Kidman delivers one of the best, if not her absolute best, perfomance ever. She commands the screen, but she’s far from carrying the film. The actors playing the servants and the children are also excellent. This movie is a joy to that if only for the technical aspect, add to that the wonderful dialogue, a powerhouse performance by Kidman and a heck of a twist and you got yourself, in my opinion as well, the best ghost story ever told.


  6. I LOVE this movie. However, the funny thing is the ending was spoiled to me long before I saw the movie on DVD. But as I watched I was so engrossed by the unfolding story, I didn’t even remember the ending was spoiled! While I would place The Sixth Sense and The Orphanage above it, The Others is truly a great film and a favorite.


    1. I watched the movie in English last week, my class is studying horror. It is the first horror movie I have watched so i can’t really have an opinion on whether I liked it or not. However have read heaps of Irish Ghost Stories, but The Others, was definitively scarier than the ones I can remember. However I think that Nicholas needed more depth of character. He did not do very much for the plot and there were not any symbols of which he was a key part. But this was probably because the actor was very young and may not have understood the emotions that he needed to posses. Still a great film though. 🙂


  7. I can’t believe I never saw this film, because I am a psychic–the real thing and I don’t do it for a living (I’m a teacher, a journalist, a historian and in show business but not as a performer) and a movie buff. Maybe I passed it by because Nicole Kidman has always struck me as removed and cold. No more. Her performance is brilliant and brims with truth and honesty. The concept, direction, cinematography, casting, editing, scoring, special effects all emerge topnotch; it is unusual to see such a perfect film. But what about the theology of the film? Well, I can only tell what I’ve been told by the dear departed and you take it from there. They’ve told me the other world is a twin of this world and located in the same place and that world is as concrete as this world but mentally constructed. They’ve also told me that the places and things we love here are replicated over there if we like. And that we stay the same people with the same level of intelligence, same personalities and same likes and dislikes. That world is the real world; this world is a stage on which we play out our lives trying to learn the lessons we need to become more and more perfected and closer and closer to be absorbed by what we think of as God. I won’t go further, but it interested me that the film fit right into those concepts. I plan to watch the film several more times as having seen the ending the whole film changed for me.


    1. Wayne, this is without doubt the most interesting comment I’ve received on this blog. I’m glad you found your way here and I would love to read what you have to say about this modern masterpiece after your second and surely not last viewing.


      1. I regretted writing what I wrote immediately because invariably I get called a crazy person or fake. You’d think after more than 50 years of helping families with hauntings, helping connecting those still here and those long gone, and foreseeing major world events (and not foreseeing just as many; I had no inkling of 9/11) I would have learned to live with what I do. l never asked for the ability, sought the ability, or studied for the ability (half the things that happen to me with horrified people looking on I have no understanding of until someone more experienced explains it). But I thought important to state how surprised I was to see a film–much less of a film of this intelligence, quality and prominence-, come to what I’ve found.


  8. i think ur full o shit to be quite honest with ya ol buddy but i was just wonderin what significance the father played in the movie.


  9. Well, I’m used to be calling names, not that it is pleasant, but I can understand skeptics who don’t do what I do or have even been around or known anyone who could (we don’t advertise ourselves). I think the father was killed in the war and emerged from the fog to comfort his family but at the same time he is horrified by what has happened. At the house he seems just exhausted and I think he has exhausted all he can offer his tragic family. He leaves I think because he knows there is nothing more he can do and he is not, like the others, tied to the house. Just my take on it, but I’m not some great intellectual so I could be full o shit. Oh, you wrote that already.


  10. Wayne, I’m interested in what you have said here. With this knowledge of having spoken to ‘the other side’, are you unafraid of death at all? Have always wondered what it would be like living in this world having no fear or doubt about what happens to you or your loved ones after we have passed.


  11. Haven’t seen this in a while but I think
    its a gem of a movie. I was struck by it’s
    orginality. It doesn’t go for cheap tricks to
    scare you…it exposes us to our own
    deep seated fears.


  12. Have you seen “The Changling” with George C. Scott (1980)? It’s another contender for greatest ghost story movie of all time. I give the edge to “The Others” as well with “Sixth Sense”, “Devil’s Backbone” and “The Orphanage” a step behind. Like “The Haunting” as well.


  13. My take on the father, is that he went to war and since they never saw him again they eventually expected that he got killed. However he didn´t – he just got inprisoned or lost in the battlefield or something. So when he appears for Kidman & co, he is in coma. But after a few days he leaves the house – not ready to pass on to the other side.
    Also, when it comes to Waynes explanations of how the other side works. This matches what I´ve heard from others mediums like Lisa Williams. And I know millions around the world believes in her words. Thats what I liked about this horror-movie – it´s scary but still I feel that is realistic. And of course the surprising twist is beautiful executed.
    When I saw the movie for the second time the movie was so filled with hints that I couldnt believe that I didnt get it the first time. Masterpiece!


  14. So, do you think the father knows he’s dead? He seems to be out of it the entire time he’s with his family, he shows no emotion… I personally think that he knows he’s dead and when he reunites with his family, he also realizes that they are dead too, but that they do not know it. What do you think?


    1. I think the husband is still alive and grieving his family. He doesn’t really interact with the rest of the family but talks to them like someone would talk to a missing loved one. He doesn’t go to dinner since the dinner isn’t real for the living, doesn’t react when Grace is with him on the bed. That looks similar to Bruce Willis and his wife’s interactions in The 6th Sense. He knows they are dead and she killed her kids when he first meets her in the fog and he says something like “tell me this isn’t so, tell me you didn’t do that!” Also, he leaves because he has nothing left to do in this house. I think, if he was dead too, he’d stay reunited with them in death.


      1. The husband is dead. For sure. He too died a tragic death and as mentioned before, not tied to the house. His spirit wondered looking for his family. A dead soldier (“sometimes I bleed”). He was in a fog literally and in his head. Maybe the director wants to convey that the experience of a lost soul is like being in a fog. Or a dream like state, as the husband was. What he was certain about was that he was looking for his home, and may have searched for iternity, had it not been for her going into the fog. Who knows how many lost souls were there looking for their home. The only time the husband was alert was when he was with his children. Upon hearing that they had died, he may have understood and been awaken to his own death. Clearly he was stricken with dispar and guilt as Grace described the stress of being imprisoned alone with her children as he decided to go to war. He understood her and spent one last night with her before going to the other side. Or maybe he too was imprisoned in the front line, but that is debatable.
        What’s evident is that the family was stuck in a dream like state of denial. At some level all of them knew they were dead but didn’t want to face it. Only the little girl was brave enough to face reality, both with her doubts about the rediculous religion she was I indoctrinated into as well as what her mother had done to them. The greater more relavent theme of the safety I’m living in a lie and the courage to accept reality even though it’s terrifying.


    1. Atmosphere is what older horror movies have in particular, whereas today’s horror movies don’t have time or patience to create a mood, or to create interesting characters.


  15. I enjoyed this film and an going to use it in my high school classroom to help teach suspense and one of Poe’s motifs: fear of insanity. I would also like to point out that The Changeling (1980 G.C. Scott) is also an excellent ghost story.


  16. I don’t think the father died. He most likely was injured and he slipped into a coma because of the war. This is how he visited his family. He was somewhat dead, but not entirely, and this would also explain why he was very weak. He had to leave though because he was starting to awake from his coma……..this is only a theory I’m suggesting.


  17. I’ve seen this movie twice now, and I still don’t understand what’s so amazing about it. I find it hardly a masterpiece. What sucks is that I want to like it so much because I like movies like The Haunting and The Innocents, but I simply can’t force myself to like it. While I love how it tried to go ultra-retro, the problem with The Others isn’t that it isn’t scary. There are many scenes that were very well executed. It’s the fact that after a certain scary scene, the movie would just stop dead in its tracks. There were be a couple of minutes where the tension is rising and the atmosphere is layered on, but after the scene is over, it goes back to being extremely slow and boring. I’m fine if there is a scary scene and then the movie slows down a little bit, but The Others slows down to an absolute crawl, which was probably because it didn’t seem like Grace seemed very interested or scared by these “ghosts”. What made movies like Paranormal Activity or The Babadook so effective is that you could feel the characters’ fear throughout the entire film. I didn’t get that from Grace at all.


    1. I just love the atmosphere in this film. A horror film doesn’t have to scary to be good. I rarely get scared or terrified while watching films, but I do feel unsettled or uncomfortable and this achieved that. I don’t count jumping out of ur seat as a scare…that’s just shock. This year’s “It Follows” did scare me though..


      1. I’m okay when a horror movie isn’t scary and mostly thrives on its atmosphere. The Blair Witch Project is a great example of that. I think I should have worded it a little better. It didn’t seem atmospheric outside of those scare scenes. I agree about It Follows. That one did scare me!


  18. Ghost stories like this serve an occult purpose of arousing a morbid curiosity in forbidden powers. They leave us confused, misled, and some some degree terrified with no sense of resolution. Or we may be left with a false sense of resolution and all’s well that ends well for “Casper the friendly ghost.” We drift from one titillating ghost story to another, “ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth.”

    From the standpoint of Christian theology, the movie undermines faith and Biblical doctrine. In one conversation of the children with the maid the clear message is that even children are not so naive to believe in fables such as Noah’s ark. The astonished Miss Hill asks, “Does your mother know that you believe like that?”

    Mom’s discussion with the children about the afterlife and 4 phases of heaven, including Limbo (if my memory serves) is a dangerous fabrication. This is an attack on the Biblical doctrines of Heaven and Hell.

    Various deathbed compilations report many stories of sheer horror that overcomes unbelievers in their final moments, as if they are staring into the very jaws of Hell. Anton LaVay being one example. “It is appointed unto man once to die, then comes judgment.”

    The overall impression is that occult powers are mysterious and ultimate in the face of a hapless and impotent Christianity.

    From a Biblical perspective phenomenon such as ghosts, paranormal activity, aliens and the like are all demon manifestations. This of course, was papered over in the film.

    And of course movies like this totally ignore the elephant in the living room, which is the absolute victory that Christ won in His death and resurrection over the Kingdom of Satan.

    “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.” (Col 2:15,16).

    Christ is able to deliver us from the fear of death and the power of the occult, “for whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10).


  19. Google about the playwright. It explains about his spiritual/religious beliefs. It seemed to me his beliefs have a great influence on the ideas expressed in the story.


  20. In my opinion, The film is a metaphor for the “death” of faith that most of us experience living in this mech-cyber world . The Victorians were so depressed that their world was becoming disenchanted and dreadful. No divine mystery? No unknowable? What kind of life is that? Are we suppose to know everything there is? I think we all can agree that the psychics, when they say they’re talking to ghosts or dead people, they’re referring to those who come to them who are looking for confirmation or proof of magic. Though that’s quite cruel to label people like that. If you know, you know 😦 In a way, we’re the same as the mom and her kids – unable to recognize ourselves as the individuals at the center of the story, willing to believe that this must be about other people. It’s okay though, the soul never really dies, it just hibernates until it we recognize what it needs to fly. 🙂 And by this, I mean, a power greater than ourselves that is not human – love, god, magic, what-have-you. Or maybe this is all just drivel and I’ve completely missed the point… oh no… maybe I’m a ghost? 😉


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