5. The Others (2001)
Having something as terrible as a ghost appear to a child was regarded by Henry James as one turn of the screw. M. Night Shyamalan confirmed that in “The Sixth Sense,” and now Alejandro Amenabar completes the axiom with his old-fashioned story, set in occupied Jersey in 1945.
Amenabar has written, directed, and even composed the musical score – how many auteurs can say as much? This is his first English-language film and one of the scariest things about it is just how fluent Amenabar is in period English. Amenabar says he loved Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton as a child – enough to read them in the original, I guess.
His leading lady is Nicole Kidman as Grace, the Catholic mistress of a gaunt old country seat, with its heavy furniture and oppressive atmosphere. She is waiting for her husband to return from the war – a conflict for which he volunteered. This abandonment is the source of much unstated grief. She has two children to care for, however, and let’s say they have some rare medical issues. But do they? Amenabar tricks us very well, but it doesn’t change the fact that the entire movie relies on that huge plot twist.
4. The Game (1997)
Director David Fincher has a handful with this one. Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a Scrooge-like San Francisco investment banker following in his father’s Scrooge-like footsteps.
On Nicholas’s 48th birthday, the age at which his father committed suicide, his free-spirited younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) blows into town and gives Nicholas a special gift for “the man who has everything” — a ticket to CRS (Consumer Recreation Services), a company that constructs games custom-fit for each participant to provide, or as CRS salesman Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn) cryptically puts it, “whatever is lacking.”
Nicholas’ secure life begins a downhill slide as CRS masterminds a series of elaborate pranks, harmless at first, that quickly become life-threatening. Convinced that he can trust no one, Nicholas begins to wonder if the game is in fact an attempt to steal his fortune and leave him for dead. Determined to fight back alone, Nicholas infiltrates CRS in order to figure it all out. And boy, does he have a surprise.
3. The Village (2004)
The man who started the whole craze with “The Sixth Sense,” he had every right to be here. The title of the film refers to a bucolic hamlet surrounded by thick woods. It’s not clear where it is located or in what time period, though it’s apparently preindustrial. The few dozen people who live there raise livestock, cavort happily in the fields, and speak an American dialect that will be familiar to nobody.
When town patriarch Edward Walker (William Hurt) wonders what a small gathering of children are looking at, for example, he asks, “What manner of spectacle has captured your attention so splendidly I ought to carry it in my pocket to help me teach?” The spectacle in question turns out to be a mutilated lamb. Hurt wisely opts not to put it in his pocket. The mutilation is assumed to be the work of tall creatures in scarlet cloaks who live in the forest.
The villagers refer to these monsters as Those We Do Not Speak Of, though of course they speak of little else. Very Harry Potteresque. For many years, an uneasy truce prevailed: the townsfolk stayed out of the woods, and the creatures stayed out of the village. But after a 10-year-old boy dies for want of modern medicines, quiet Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) asks the village elders for permission to remedy the deficiency by journeying through the woods to the surrounding towns. On a brief trip into the forest he is spotted by one of the “creatures.”
In apparent consequence, the creatures begin invading the village at night as its inhabitants cower in their root cellars. In addition to Walker and Lucius, said inhabitants include Walker’s strong-willed daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has been blind from an early age; Lucius’s widowed mother (Sigourney Weaver); and Ivy’s frequent playmate, the childlike, mentally ill Noah (Adrien Brody).
At multiple points throughout the film, Noah’s freedom from rationality is used as an excuse for twists that have no underlying logic of their own. Then there is the big twist. It is almost impossible for Shyamalan to make a movie without plot twists.
2. Seven Pounds (2008)
Gabriele Muccino, the Italian filmmaker who directed Will Smith in the 2006 family drama “The Pursuit of Happyness,” is now at the helm of a movie intended to be both a puzzling and emotional journey. We are initially supposed to be intrigued by that enigmatic title, unexplained until the very last, and perhaps inspired by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “21 Grams”. What does “seven pounds” mean?
The movie starts with Smith phoning the emergency services. He is evidently in the midst of a physical crisis. Then we flashback to what led up to this, and the puzzle pieces are put into position. Smith is Ben Thomas, apparently an officer with the Internal Revenue Service, who is on a mysterious mission – searching, searching, searching for decent, good people.
He tells the successful ones whom he chooses things like, “You have a beautiful family.” Ben finds himself drawn to one Emily Posa, with a cardiac condition, played by Rosario Dawson. But what is really happening? Well, what is really happening is the plot twist of the movie. The movie relies on it, but even the twist can’t save it.
1. Secret Window (2004)
At the top of this list, there is a Johnny Depp movie. At this point in his career, nobody really defends him, except J.K. Rowling. Before the whole ordeal, he was considered a serious actor. But this film… really? Did we really need this?
From writer/director David Koepp comes this filmed adaptation of Stephen King’s novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” one of four stories in the collection Four Past Midnight. Johnny Depp stars as Mort Rainey, a recently divorced writer who decides to take some time off at his cottage.
Unfortunately for Rainey, John Shooter (John Turturro), an unbalanced wannabe author, comes to his home, claiming that Rainey stole his work. Also starring Maria Bello, Charles S. Dutton and Timothy Hutton, “Secret Window” is the second story from Four Past Midnight to be adapted as a movie.
Certainly, the script needed more vigour and wit to make it interesting, even if we do have one of those great King twists. Even that is not good enough. Sadly, the big secret couldn’t be any more obvious than if it was shouted from the rooftops by giant clowns.