Films

Slow-burn Scariness

Patricia Hluchy August 20 2001
Films

Slow-burn Scariness

Patricia Hluchy August 20 2001

Slow-burn Scariness

A supernatural thriller and a murder-blackmail saga get mixed results from old formulas

Patricia Hluchy

Films

Out with obscenely budgeted extravaganzas, in with more modest diversions. As North Americans pant their way into the torrid second leg of summer's dog days, smaller movies are returning to the screen, offering slow-burn drama instead of mind-frying effects.

The Others is a supernatural thriller; The Deep End is a tale of murder and blackmail. The former boasts the star power of Nicole Kidman; the latter offers hunk du jour Goran Visnjic, who—for at least half the TV audience—has become one of the few reasons to watch the increasingly desperate series ER.

Both are more-than-serviceable entertainments, though on the originality scale The Deep End blows The Others out of the water.

THE OTHERS A gloomy mansion is perpetually shrouded in fog. It’s at the end of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere on the secluded Isle of Jersey, and has one of those creepy gnarled trees out front—the kind that seem to grow only in the Hollywood imagination. As SCTVs Count Floyd would have said,

“Oooooh, kids, verrrrry scarrrrry!” This tale of the supernatural comes with an extra-large helping of horror clichés—the piano that plays by itself and the strange thumping from the second floor, the knowing servants and the unhinged mistress of the manor. The movie generates an adequate number of spine-tingling moments. But it also provokes a sense of déjà vu: didn’t we see this before in The Changeling and that in The Fifth Element, and, gee, doesn’t that kid look a lot like Eddie Munster?

As the film opens, Grace (Kidman) welcomes three new domestics into her Victorian monster home and its strange housekeeping protocols. All 50 Mann (left doors must be kept locked, and the drapes must be shut at all times, since Grace’s son and daughter are highly allergic to light. The entire family is in disarray because father (Christopher Eccleston), who went off to fight in the Second World War, has been missing for a year and a half. To top everything off, insolent little Ann® (Alakina Mann) is having conversations with an invisible—but increasingly noisy—family.

Written and directed by Madrid-based Alejandro Amenábar, making his English-language debut, The Others is definitely spooky. The pasty-faced children played by Mann and James

Bendey are both frightening and frightened. Kidman, meanwhile, has perfected the coiled terror she first displayed in Dead Calm (1989). Her Grace, whose grim sweater sets and funereal suits appear to have come from a design house called Charnel, is a mix of nerve and vulnerability. But the actress seems hemmed in by the predictable script, with its overlay of psychology-lite and Roman Catholicism. Or maybe she was just miserable about the impending breakdown of her marriage to Tom Cruise, who was one of her bosses on the movie as an executive producer.

THE DEEP END Beau Hall is a dream son, handsome, sweet and a gifted trumpeter with a good chance of gaining admittance to a prestigious college. He has also recendy discovered his libido, and he prefers men. Beau (Jonathan Tucker) has plunged into the deep end, getting involved with Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), the sleazebag owner of a gay nightclub—and drunkenly crashing his car on the way home from a tryst. Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), otherwise known as Mom, is not happy. Then, all hell breaks loose when Margaret finds Darby’s body on the shore of the family’s Lake Tahoe residence. Suspecting her son of the murder, Margaret— whose naval officer husband is away at sea—also gets in over her head, dumping the body in the lake. But the nightmare deepens with the arrival of blackmailer Alek Spera (Visnjic), who has a tape of Beau and Darby in flagrante.

The whole murder-blackmail scenario has become terribly stale, but writer-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel {Suture) have given it a fresh contemporary spin with Beau’s sexuality and Margaret’s tough devotion to her three children. She actually changes appointments with her blackmailer so she can pick up the kids. Swinton’s grave beauty and low-key delivery make her character memorable, though two-thirds of the way through I wasn’t entirely buying all that sangfroid. As for Croatian native Visnjic, well, the combination of mystery and killer looks that makes Dr. Luka Kovac on ER so appealing remains intact on the big screen. He makes his blackmailer’s attacks of conscience credible. But what were the filmmakers thinking when they had Alek channel Dr. Kovac to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Margaret’s father-in-law?

Near the end, the movie verges on schmaltz. But overall The Deep End is intriguing. Like a swim in Lake Tahoe, one of the world’s deepest, it’s cool, refreshing and more than a little scary.