Alejandro Amenabar doesn't believe in ghosts.
Ask the 29-year-old Spanish director if he's ever encountered an apparition in a creepy old house and he'll respond with a hearty laugh.
"I'm not really terrified by the possibility of seeing a ghost," he says. "It is human beings--and the things they're capable of--that really scare me."
The question does not come out of the blue; after all, Amenabar's latest film, "The Others," the follow-up to his 1997 cult sensation "Open Your Eyes," is a stylish ghost story. "The Others" harks back to atmospheric genre classics such as the 1963 Robert Wise-directed version of "The Haunting" and "The Innocents," the 1961 adaptation of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw."
"The Others," which opens Friday, is Amenabar's first English-language movie ("Open Your Eyes" is in Spanish). It was produced by Cruise/Wagner Productions, the company owned by Tom Cruise, and it stars Cruise's ex-wife Nicole Kidman. Unlike "Open Your Eyes," which was made in Spain for less than $2 million, "The Others' enjoyed a relatively plush budget of about $20 million.
Amenabar's pop sensibility, as well as his sly manipulation of genre conventions, makes him a perfect candidate for Hollywood success. In fact, Cameron Crowe's upcoming "Vanilla Sky" is a remake of "Open Your Eyes" (it even co-stars the original's lead actress, Penelope Cruz, along with her dating partner Cruise). An English version of Amenabar's first film, 1995's "Tesis," is also in the works.
Fans of "Open Your Eyes" will remember the film's surprise ending; the device is something of an Amenabar trademark. "The Others" boasts a number of riveting plot twists and a remarkable resolution, its final, cathartic moments provoking shock, dread and disbelief. Sitting in the balcony of a Beverly Hills hotel room recently, Amenabar smiles when asked if any of his friends were able to guess the film's ending. He proudly announces that he was able to fool them all--adding that as a spectator himself, he loves those movies that manage to surprise him in an intelligent way.
"Eventually I'd love to free myself from surprise endings," he admits. "Hitchcock didn't like them. He avoided them as much as he could. But I can't seem to shake them off. A big discovery at the end of the picture helps me guide my protagonist to the culmination of the journey, to the lesson that's waiting to be learned."
"The Others" tells the story of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a stern, repressed Englishwoman who spends her days locked with her two children inside a mansion on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between Britain and France, at the end of World War II. Grace is eagerly awaiting the return of her husband from the front, even though she is starting to suspect he might have died in combat. Because they suffer a rare disease that makes them extremely sensitive to light, the children must be kept away from the sun at all times.
When three servants arrive at the secluded mansion, after the previous batch of hired help unexpectedly deserted the household, a series of deliciously unsettling events begins to happen, suggesting that the house might be haunted.
From the moment he started writing the movie three years ago, Amenabar knew that he wanted its opening sequence to be the image of a woman screaming inside an old, spooky mansion. He was also infatuated with the idea of children who cannot be exposed to the light of day.
"I saw it as a metaphor on knowledge and also on the ways that we use to educate our children, ways which sometimes I think are simply monstrous," Amenabar says.
Metaphors are central to Amenabar's work. The character of Grace, for instance, an oppressive mother who dominates her children in spite of her love for them, is a potent representation of the contradictions inherent in families.
"You could say the entire story functions as a complete transgression on what a family is supposed to be," Amenabar says. "I love the idea of hidden ghosts in family relations. [Grace's] biggest contradiction is that, although she is a castrating mother, she loves her children madly."
"It wasn't a simple character," agrees Kidman, speaking by phone from New York. "This is a woman whose whole life revolves around protecting her children. This [particular element] was very important to me. I wanted the audience to feel for her."
Ambiguity, then, is an important part of Amenabar's reinterpretation of the suspense genre.
"All the haunted houses stories that I had read or seen always ended in this very linear fashion, mainly with a confrontation between good and evil," he says. "My intention was to use the same narrative elements but end up with the exact opposite moral conclusion. At the end of my story, Grace comes to realize that she knows absolutely nothing, that she has no concrete answers or solutions for her life."