Panic Room & The Others: Home sinister home

Wendy Haslem

Panic Room

Panic Room

Released within months of each other, Panic Room (David Fincher) and The Others (Alejandro Amenábar) share an obsession with the darker side of domestic life. These films reverse the traditional association between home, stability and security, emphasising instead entrapment and danger. They join a long list of films where the home transforms into a jail, confining and controlling its inhabitants. This list includes Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), with its evil apartment where white walls trickle blood and sprout hands that grasp and threaten to engulf its inhabitant. Another is Robert Wise’s ‘deranged’ Hill House in The Haunting (1963). Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), is a more recent example of menacing Gothic architecture. The Overlook Hotel is haunted by the restless spirits of the Indian burial ground beneath. The interior is designed like a labyrinth; it has elevators that gush blood and a ghostly inhabitant who transforms from an alluring beauty to a vile corpse in the blink of an eye. The most significant link between all of these films is their representation of the domestic space as uncanny: things are not as they first seem and most alarmingly, people are not as they appear.

Originally Nicole Kidman was to star in Panic Room as well as The Others, until a knee injury forced her to abandon the project just 2 weeks before shooting commenced. She was replaced by Jodie Foster who brings a quiet resilience to the role, recalling some of the more tenacious female characters in recent American cinema like Ripley in Alien (1986) and Sarah Conner in Terminator 2, Judgement Day (1991). As the central character of the Gothic drama, Nicole Kidman is perfectly cast. Her porcelain skin, seemingly untouched by sunlight, combined with the stiffness of her body, express a reserve vital for a narrative that is sustained by her denial. Resplendent in a deep blue, impossibly well-fitting knitted jacket, Kidman’s character appears as a nostalgic reinvention of the coolness of Greta Garbo or Ingrid Bergman.

The retrospective impulse is most evident in the homage to Hitchcock featured in both The Others and Panic Room. Each director produces a version of Hitchcock’s famous circular shot designed to replicate Alicia’s (Ingrid Bergman) bleary eyed vision as she wakes and tilts her head, struggling to focus after a night of drinking with Devlin (Cary Grant) in Notorious (1946). By recreating this shot, both Amenábar and Fincher restate Hitchcock’s concern with the problem of vision. Do the protagonists see clearly, or are they hallucinating? Disorientation, doubt, hesitancy and disbelief are staples of the Gothic. This occlusion of vision is facilitated by a distinct lack of light in The Others where windows are barricaded and doors kept locked. With its muted tones and interiors sheltered in darkness, this film is as close to black and white as is possible in mainstream cinema. Panic Room also limits its color range to steely greys, blues and whites, with more darkness than light in its climactic scenes. Both rely on darkness and off screen space to suggest menace, both manipulate point of view, systematically revealing and concealing information, raising apprehension when the familiar becomes unfamiliar.

Amenábar’s The Others develops suspense by questioning perception. Characters are defined according to those who see and embrace the ghosts, and others who resist the presence of the supernatural. In The Others, this split is represented by a gulf that separates Grace from her 2 children and the trio of ‘new’ servants. While the children interact with the ghosts, Grace remains in denial until the final moment when the connection between the spirits and the home is revealed.

In the Gothic, the haunted house is almost a character in its own right. In The Others, the mansion is obsessively controlled by Grace with curtains drawn and each door locked before another can be opened. Amenábar highlights this by amplifying the jangling sound of skeleton keys on the soundtrack. According to Grace, her children are ‘photo-sensitive’; they have an allergy to light where exposure will result in suffocation. Isolation is emphasised further with Grace’s pronouncement to the servants that the house does not have electricity, nor does she own a radio or television: silence is prized above sound. This is a mansion that is haunted by loss: the loss of childhood and the loss of companionship. Grace reveals that her original servants vanished “into thin air”, and she waits for her husband to return from a war that ended long ago.

The mansion imprisons its inhabitants. It is surrounded by a dense landscape making transit difficult, if not impossible. When she attempts to find help beyond the limits of her estate, Grace becomes disorientated in a forest thick with fog. The most resonant image of The Others frames Grace between the iron bars of a front gate that imprisons her family. Whilst her body is confined, her eyes search the distance. This picture of feminine incarceration is an archetype of the Gothic genre, the visual expression of quiet desperation. A similarly tightly framed image of Meg is used in the promotion of Panic Room. Her head is horizontal and her wide-eyed expression suggests alarm whilst a blurred menacing character hovers behind.

Panic Room establishes a sense of claustrophobia and questions vision right from the opening credits. Set on the Upper West Side of New York City, the credit sequence is a montage of images of tall buildings—mostly anonymous—framed to fill the screen with grids of windows. Gigantic white letters form the opening credits, hanging between the buildings as if by magic. This clash of text and image gives the supernatural a familiar context, introducing a sense of the uncanny.

The house itself is an immediate problem: it is referred to as an ‘emotional’ property as if it were alive. In his monologue introducing the house, the realtor Evan calls it a ‘townstone’: a hybrid of the townhouse and the brownstone, extremely ‘uncommon.’ Its vertical design makes movement within difficult. The winding staircase is steep and extensive and the house contains an ancient elevator, replete with an iron grid gate. A wall of screens recording video from strategically placed static cameras flattens and fractures the space into a collection of low-resolution black and white images. These are contrasted with Fincher’s more flamboyant representation of the domestic space. Adopting an impossible point of view, the mobile camera glides throughout the space, travelling into keyholes, between rooms, through walls, floors, even deftly slipping through the handle of a coffee pot.

The most compelling space in Panic Room is the secret chamber. This room is discovered by default when Meg notices an anomaly in the dimensions of a room. The panic room is concealed in the negative space of a smaller room. It functions as asecure space for millions of dollars worth of bonds concealed in the false bottom of a safe, but it also offers refuge from home invasion. The panic room chills Meg and she acknowledges the potential for entrapment when she asks her friend, “Ever read any Poe?” But the point is lost on Lydia who replies, “No, but I loved her last album.” As the mother and child shelter within, the space takes on a sinister dimension, a possibility anticipated by Sarah who insists that live burial doesn’t happen quite as often as it used to. Immured within, Meg and Sarah are subjected to an array of assaults (including gunfire and asphyxiation) which threaten to transform the shelter into a tomb.

The house in Panic Room eventually becomes a refuge for Meg who transforms the space into an obstacle course. She denies the burglars access to vision by turning off lights and smashing the surveillance cameras with a sledgehammer. In the darkness, the focus shifts from the eyes to the ears. Meg tracks the progress of the burglars by smashing a mirror and listening for the burglars who crunch the glass underfoot. The roles are reversed and hunter becomes hunted as Meg regains control of the house.

The cinema is the perfect vehicle for domestic Gothic dramas. It is the only medium that has the ability to reanimate the dead or to depict menace within seemingly harmless environments. Like the Gothic, the cinema questions vision by producing a hesitancy between the real and the imagined. Panic Room and The Others offer compelling representation of the uncanny by defamiliarising the most familiar space of all, the home.

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 17

© Wendy Haslem; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002