A good chill is hard to find. And the one major fright in "The Others," a supernatural thriller, is given away in the trailer: A frightening creature (that's all we'll reveal) shocks protective mother Grace (Nicole Kidman) by speaking in someone else's voice. Even for those who might have seen the preview clip, it makes for a truly spine-tingling moment in an eerie movie that all but reinvents the haunted-house genre.
Alejandro Amenábar, the Spanish-born director of 1997's exhilarating "Open Your Eyes," mostly foregoes big-scare moments -- along with special effects and buckets of blood -- in favor of a simple but elegantly told and decidedly creepy story, smartly acted and abetted by the atmospheric cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe ("Salsa," "Secrets of the Heart"). Seldom have candlelight, natural light and the glow of a fireplace been used as effectively, offering spooky illumination to interiors that might have been darkened for decades.
The setting is a big old mansion, of course, always the best place for a ghost story (1999's "The Haunting" and "House on Haunted Hill" notwithstanding). It's 1945 on Jersey in Britain's Channel Islands. Grace and her pasty-faced children -- temperamental adolescent Anne (Alakina Mann) and her emotionally needy little brother Nicholas (James Bentley) -- are waiting for their husband and father (Christopher Eccleston) to return from the war.
Something seems off-kilter about the household from the start. Grace, growing increasingly frazzled by the intense isolation on a vast, gray estate that seems forever shrouded in fog, is determined to shield her photosensitive children from the sunlight. Thus all the curtains are drawn, and the woman of the cavernous house insists on a maddening ritual: No door will be opened without first locking the one through which one has entered a room.
It's a gloomy place, absent of electricity and crawling with long shadows and eerie silences, with no telephones or radios to offer reassuring interruptions from the outside world. "Silence is something that we prize very much in this house," mom tells the matronly, efficient Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), one of a trio of new workers, including a mute girl (Elaine Cassidy) and a seasoned caretaker (Eric Sykes), who show up on a whim. The last crew disappeared without saying goodbye.
Grace, ably played by Kidman in a solid performance that's 180 degrees from her offbeat work in this summer's "Moulin Rouge," is quite the odd bird, what with her passionate lessons about the meaning of hell and the mysterious, unspeakable something that happened not so long ago. But the new workers are odd, too; they know far more about the house's secrets than they're letting on. "I think that sometimes the world of the dead gets mixed up in the world of the living," says Mrs. Mills, defending young Anne's often stated position regarding the home's unwelcome visitors.
Amenábar, a master of suspenseful pacing, takes his time allowing the layers of perception to be removed. And he wraps it all up with a freaky conclusion that's entirely unforeseen. Call it the sharpest twist of the summer.