In the skittery haunted house thriller The Others, Nicole Kidman plays a very frightened woman with two very spooky children in a remote Victorian mansion that looks as if it might contain more rooms than the palace of Versailles. At one point, she does something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do in a haunted house movie: She grabs the mansion’s heavy aristocratic drapes and makes sure that they’re closed, eliminating all the light of the world. She wants to lock the darkness in.
”It did happen,” insists the little girl in ”The Others,” and watching the film, which is as crammed with teasing portents as a Stephen King séance, there is never much doubt that it did. The suspenseful question is what it is. Set in the gray mist English countryside during the waning days of World War II, the movie has a busy, throttling intensity that takes off from the elegant fury of Kidman, her hair styled into a chaste postwar curl that gives her the aura of a Grace Kelly suffering from repressed hysteria.
The character’s name is, in fact, Grace, and as she waits in frantic desolation for her husband to return from the war, she fights to protect her young son and daughter from some hidden unspeakable knowledge. She insists that every passageway be sealed off (if the door to a room is opened, you’re required to close the one behind you), and this mania for the hermetic, for turning parlors into de facto tombs, cuts so far against the grain of how the milky skinned heroine of an old fashioned supernatural chiller is supposed to behave that the turn of Kidman’s screw appears to be more than a little loose. She practically courts the terror, which is not, as I recall, what went on in Amityville.
As orchestrated by the Spanish writer director Alejandro Amenábar (”Open Your Eyes”), ”The Others” ricochets from such been there shivered at clichés as creaking floorboards and a distant piano waltz to a disturbingly eerie monograph book of posed corpses. The dowdy trio of Irish servants who go to work for Grace are so obviously up to something that it’s hard to find them sinister, but the image of Grace’s little girl channeling an old lady has a psycho bugginess. Does it all add up? The gimmicks, in the end, are too arbitrary to tie together in a memorably haunting fashion, though they do culminate in a Big Twist, a nifty one that almost — but not quite — makes you want to see the movie again.