The recent controversy over the video documenting reporter Daniel Pearl's murder — whether there's a justification for making it available, who gets to decide, et cetera — is echoed (albeit in a less serious fashion) by the recent release of Thesis (Vanguard), the debut feature by Chile-born Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar. A Brian De Palma-style thriller about a ring of killers who produce snuff films, it's full of meta-commentary on the horror genre without the silly humor of Scream and its ilk. The most sympathetic male character is obsessed with gory films and lives in a crypt-like home, making it easy for the director to fill the film with hints that he may be one of the killers. It's tight and fun, but so closely patterned after De Palma that you wouldn't suppose Amenábar had much more up his sleeve.
Guess again. Open Your Eyes (Artisan) is as imaginative as Thesis was derivative. Both the story itself (which has a twist familiar to those who've seen its American remake, Vanilla Sky) and the chopped-up way it's told — with false starts and fake flashbacks, creepy interrogations and unreliable protagonists — are fresh and inventive. Amenábar takes the two male leads from his first film and swaps them, giving the Tom Cruise role to Thesis' secondary actor (Eduardo Noriega, a young man who's been in some of Spain's best recent imports). Without the expensive, futuristic sheen that Cameron Crowe put on the remake, Eyes is a much more universal story featuring a lead with whom we might actually identify.
Which is not to say Vanilla Sky (Paramount) isn't a thrilling head trip in its own right; it's just a different kind of beast, regardless of its faithfulness to the original screenplay. The Crowe/Cruise/Cruz version is about one person's search for his own humanity, with a hyper-rich, mega-good looking golden boy played with maximum self-absorption by Cruise.
Cruise, while he was still married to Nicole Kidman, helped Amenábar make his first English-language film, The Others (Buena Vista), which starred Kidman. As frequent comparisons to The Sixth Sense indicated, The Others hinges on some cinematic misdirection, just as the director's previous films did. In other respects, though, it's no more like them than Henry James is like Fangoria magazine. Concocting a narrative reason to keep the English manor where the film is set shrouded in perpetual darkness (and the reason itself is creepy — Kidman's two children are extremely allergic to light), his period piece evokes the mood of James' Turn of the Screw.
Interestingly for a scary movie in today's CGI world, Amenábar refrains from using special effects. Actually, the only element that should be called an effect is Kidman's icy, ceramic beauty. Her face, and the startling eyes within them, shine hauntingly in the dark corridors and cloudy nights of the film, lit by candles if at all. Playing for old-school chills instead of De Palma thrills, the film — like its cousin, Guillermo del Toro's Devil's Backbone — makes the plain ol' ghost story a viable genre again for the first time in ages. Though here, there's always the possibility that the tale's real villain is some madness that Kidman's Grace Stewart is hiding from herself. (Incidentally, is Amenábar paying homage to Rear Window with her name, which marries Grace Kelly with Jimmy Stewart?)
With each film, Amenábar moves his notion of what's scary deeper inside the individual's mind, making it quieter and more mysterious. It's hard to see how much farther he could go with it and still keep audiences engaged. But with three strong features under his belt, it's probably going to be fun to watch him try.