Haunted houses are woven into the history of fiction. Each one is defined by a set of similar characteristics: shifting hallways, shadowy rooms, walls, and windows tilting and enclosing like living organs. On some level, it is like all of these stories are unfolding in the same house, confined to separate corners of a single, intimidating structure. The question for filmmakers is how to reinterpret it across time.
Perhaps the definitive example of the haunted house is Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, featuring a mansion precariously balanced on the border between life and death. Clayton builds the story around the setting’s negative space, coiling around non-events, settling on figments that are barely there. In an early conversation between Flora (Pamela Franklin), Miles (Martin Stephens) and their governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), the children ask about her humble upbringing, inquiring into the specifics of living in close proximity to her legalistic father. “Was it too small for you to have secrets?” Miles asks, with something between knowingness and precociousness glinting menacingly. While many films depend on offering audiences a way of intimately understanding the limitations of the setting, Clayton understood that Bly mansion had to be a net of hidden alleys, a place incomprehensible to an outsider, bursting with secrets.
In 2001, Alejandro Amenábar released a loose adaptation of The Innocents (which is already an adaptation of the same-titled William Archibald play, itself an adaption of Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw). This film, The Others, strayed from the plot of the original but stayed tonally faithful to its gothic sensibilities. Like Bly manor, the property hosting an overwrought Grace (Nicole Kidman) and her sadistic children (Alakina Mann as Anne and James Bentley as Nicholas), is sprawling and high-ceilinged. The films split here, using their historical moments to dramatically recontextualise the horror that ensues. Early on, Grace asks her newly hired housekeeper, Mrs. Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), about her familiarity with the house. Bertha responds, “Like the back of my hand. Well, that is always assuming that walls haven’t sprouted legs and moved in the meantime.” The joke hangs heavily over Grace, clouding any ease. “The only thing that moves here is the light,” she responds.
The line is determined by Anne and Nicholas’ fatal sensitivity to sunlight, but it speaks to the process of reimagining that Amenábar embarks on with The Others. The haunted house is both a haven from ensuing violence and the source of it—a dissonance which lends storytellers an inbuilt dramatic tension, one which has enraptured them for centuries, drawing them back to such a compromised location. Remaking horror is a process of negotiating where the light emits from, bending it around new, less familiar obstructions. Translating The Innocents to The Others is a matter of slight shifts, measuring the original scope and expanding or contracting by a few degrees.
One of the major changes to the story is dragging it forward from its Victorian origins to a setting midway through World War II. The timeline shift informs Grace’s trepidation and despair in light of her husband’s disappearance on the battlefields. But the foundation of fear remains, heightened by the instability the war wrought, which saw families thrown into flux. What separates The Others from projects that similarly utilise a more modern contextualisation to retell a memorable tale (namely the updated Halloween and Friday the 13th) is that they struggle to imagine a world outside of the story. Their characters are held hostage by the author, confined to the narrow parameters of the plot.
Things which frighten us enough to elicit a response are often purposefully built to remain unsettling, but that horror loses its potency if there is no attempt to adapt such fear, ensuring it carries a similarly effective surprise. Audiences plummet into the crack of doubt compromising the religious foundation of Victorian society in The Innocents, while The Others features a more traditional, final act plot twist, embodying a kind of sudden, unavoidable hopelessness. As it becomes clear that Grace and her children are the ghostly intruders haunting another family, the film becomes a story of ownership and occupation—a covert examination of the war’s spectral presence.To add another adaptive layer to this succession of shifting meta-myths, The Turn of the Screw opens with the narrator hearing this story over a fireside chat. Douglas, the character who ultimately tells the story, responds to a demanding audience with a quick: “The story won’t tell… not in any literal vulgar way.” This dismissal encapsulates the succession of altered versions which would spring from James’s novella. The intangible invasion of your private space is a terrifying idea that continues to dominate fiction, but it takes a steady creative hand to give it an era-specific weight. Both Clayton and Amenábar manage to filter these elemental fears, communicating something new and frighteningly close.
“The Others” is available on 4K and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.