Alejandro Amenábar was already a Spanish cinema sensation and garnering comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock before he notched his first English language hit with the slyly old-fashioned thriller The Others (2001).
Raised in Spain after his Chile-based parents fled the country shortly before the 1973 right-wing coup d'état, Amenábar decided to be a filmmaker early on, heading to Madrid's Complutense University to study cinema. Undeterred after his professors flunked him, Amenábar learned the craft firsthand on low-budget productions. Backed by a producer and star he met during his "apprenticeship," Amenábar burst onto the Spanish film scene at the ripe old age of 23 as writer/director and composer with his first feature, Tesis (1996). A moody mystery involving a cinema graduate student and snuff films, Tesis was shown at the Berlin Film Festival and earned several Spanish Academy Awards.
Amenábar then scored an even bigger hit with his next film, Open Your Eyes (1997). A complex psychological thriller about a womanizing egotist who is disfigured in an accident, Open Your Eyes became a blockbuster in Spain, bringing Amenábar his first international distribution and a Sundance Film Festival berth. Though Open Your Eyes didn't become a U.S. hit, it did attract an influential fan in Tom Cruise, who subsequently co-starred with Open Your Eyes femme Penelope Cruz in Cameron Crowe's Hollywood remake of the film, Vanilla Sky (2001).
After composing the scores for the Spanish drama The Butterfly (1999) and his Open Your Eyes collaborator Mateo Gil's thriller Nobody Knows Anybody (1999), Amenábar made his first foray into Hollywood with The Others. Executively produced by Cruise and starring his then-wife Nicole Kidman as a 1940s British mother who may or may not be crazy, The Others introduced American audiences to Amenábar's skill at evoking spine-tingling chills without resorting to gory shock techniques. Introducing an isolated mansion swathed in pea soup fog, inhabited by a tightly wound Kidman and her two light-allergic children, and plagued by things that go bump in the night, Amenábar then proceeds to turn the haunted house cliché on its cinematic ear. Earning kudos for Kidman's performance and Amenábar's restrained yet assured style and plot-twisting script, The Others became a late-summer sleeper success.
On the heels of the success of The Others - and given Amenábar's remarkable ability to elicit chills from an audience as so masterfully displayed in Abre Los Ojos - it would have been all to easy to have written the multi-talented filmmaker off as little more than a style minded Hitchcock wannabe. Where many fright-minded filmmakers would be sharpening their knives in hopes of topping their previous efforts, Amenábar instead opted to truly challenge both himself and his audience with The Sea Inside. An affectingly humanistic tale of life and the right to die, The Sea Inside starred Spanish mainstay Javier Bardem in the role of real-life euthanasia activist Ramon Sampedro. While it may not have been the kind of film that audiences expected from Amenábar - The Sea Inside proved such a moving cinematic experience that it was bestowed with the "Best Foreign Language Film" award at the 77th Annual Academy Awards in February of 2005.