Rating: PG-13 for mature themes
Run Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
“The Sixth Sense” meets “Dark Shadows” in this classic, entertaining nod to the old-fashioned ghost story.
Decrepit mansions, pea-soup fog and sinister housekeepers are a recipe for disaster, particularly in the remote English island of Jersey in 1945. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is a housebound young mother, playing nursemaid to two children with a strange affliction to light, and struggling with the idea that her charismatic husband will never return from the front. Maintaining an aloof bravado, Grace clings to her devout Christian beliefs like a drowning woman hugging a lifesaver. When a trio of local house-helpers turns up on Grace’s doorstep seeking work, she hires them on the spot with a alacrity akin to desperation. No references required - seems the former housekeepers vanished into the night, never to be seen or heard from again.
This is not your average household. The rules are unconventional, and must be followed to a letter. Never open a door until the one before it has been closed and locked. The light must be contained as if it were water, and curtains must be perpetually shut to protect the photo-sensitive Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). It’s only a matter of movie time until strange sounds are heard, and Anne claims to have seen and spoken to Victor, a young boy who used to reside in the mansion. Grave warnings of big surprises and inevitable changes go unheeded, as Grace steadfastly refuses to give into the concept of restless spirits unhappily roaming her home.
It’s been a long, dry spell without a 1940s-era horror film. What it lacks in slick computer graphics and tricky sleights of hand is more than made up for in creepy dramatic clichés and spine-tingling tension. Children with eerily pale countenances spouting unearthly wisdom, the ubiquitous hidden gravestones, and repeated references to “That Day” all presage evil, but leave the melodramatic dirty work to the imagination.
I am reminded, once again, that Nicole Kidman is much much more than a pretty face. Her Mom-under-house-arrest is flawlessly portrayed – cool beauty on the surface and a brittle frustration seething just below. Mann plays the pseudo-bad seed with bratty gusto, and Fionnula Flanagan as the housekeeper Mrs. Mills overcomes her conventional duties with a disturbingly composed edge. Pacing is occasionally glacial, but manages to pick itself up again with a couple of well-timed twists. Canny religious references dead end into scriptless obscurity. A finely drawn tale that’s sure to leave you wondering, why don’t they make ‘em like this anymore?