Everyone has that one horror movie they’re drawn to this time of year. The one they immediately pull out for anyone who says they haven’t seen it yet. For me, this is that film. The Other is one of the creepiest, most disturbing horror films to come out of the 70’s. It could be put into the “evil child” subgenre, a relative of The Bad Seed, The Omen and The Brotherhood of Satan.
Describing the film is difficult because it relies a lot on the twist that occurs which altars everything including your perception of what is happening here. In fact, the thing I would urge everyone to do is to go into this film blind. Completely blind. Don’t read about it. Don’t look at the trailer. Don’t even look at the poster and for the love of God, don’t read the synopsis on the back of the DVD case or even look at the DVD cover art. It totally ruins the twist. Really, what is it with DVD summaries ruining the movie before you even watch it? Do they assume because it’s so old everyone knows already? Anyway, if there was ever a movie to JUST SEE without knowing a single thing other than the most basic setup (which I’ll describe here) this is it. I was lucky in that I came across this movie about 14 years ago about 2:00 in the morning on AMC and that was the perfect way to see it because I was floored.
Directed by Robert Mulligan (Summer Of ’42, To Kill A Mockingbird) with a truly adept understanding of film language, it was based off of the bestselling 1971 novel from Tom Tyron who was a former actor. Tyron had a starring role in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal and was treated so horribly by the director that he quit acting to write novels and you know what? It was the best decision he ever made because from all of the reviews I’ve read about the book, it’s just as good as the film and rocked people to the core. He wrote primarily horror novels, two others taking place in the same fictional town of Pequot Landing, Connecticut. This novel and the two others (Harvest Home and Lady) are so good and influential to horror that Stephen King has admitted to being heavily influenced by them and has borrowed themes from them in his own works like Children of the Corn. Judging by the film itself, which apparently sticks pretty close to the book aside from the ending, this narrative doesn’t disappoint.
It’s the 1930’s in a small Connecticut town and life feels idyllic as the lazy summer plays itself out. We are immediately introduced to Niles Perry and his twin brother Holland. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Niles is the sweet-hearted, charming brother while Holland is the mischievous, anti-social one. These twins couldn’t be anymore different. How different is where the crux of the story lies. We follow Niles and Holland’s summer play until they arrive at the Perry family’s barn where we are introduced to the rest of the clan.
There’s Alexandra the mother played by Diana Muldaur who is still trying to recover from the accidental death of the boys’ father. There is a disturbing sense of sadness right underneath her every expression but she’s doing her best to fine hope again and Niles does everything he can to brighten her day when they interact. We’re also introduced to the boy’s older, very pregnant sister Torrie and her husband, Rider, played by a very young John Ritter. There’s also the slightly creepy groundskeeper Mr. Angelini and their obnoxious, tattle tale cousin Piggy. The real standout and central to the plot here is the character of Ada, the boy’s Russian immigrant grandmother played by famed Broadway actress Uta Hagen in a mesmerizing performance. Her and the boys have a very special relationship. She has taught them “The Great Game”, a paranormal kind of ability where they concentrate on a living creature and through sheer force of will, seem to be able to inhabit their spirit and see through their eyes. Between the introduction of this paranormal ability and the death of the father, it slowly becomes more obvious to the viewer that there is something dark and disturbing lurking beneath the Norman Rockwell- setting of this peaceful farmhouse. When members of this small community start to slowly die off over the course of the summer, it’s obvious the boys have something to do with it and the slow realization by the characters in the film and the viewer, of what’s happening is the very definition of creeping dread.
This film starts with a slow, languid pace that seems to be taking it’s time to get going but pay attention. There’s nothing in this film that isn’t shown for a reason. It’s all very carefully crafted and constructed. This is a beautiful example of the 70’s “Slow Burn”. It almost lulls the audience into a nostalgic past but slowly and methodically it becomes a truly twisted version of The Waltons and when that first twist hits you, your jaw will drop. The thing is, that happens in the second act and is just prelude to what’s coming. The second half of the film takes you on a journey that just gets darker and more intense, leading you to the horrifying climax…and what a climax. The final shot is haunting and leaves you wondering if there was something supernatural going on here or if it’s just in the head of the characters. Either answer is just as disturbing.
The twins here are not played by a single actor with clever editing and split screen mattes but by brothers Chris and Martin Udvarnoky. This was to be their only acting performance and it’s a very impressive one. As far as creepy 70s kids go, these two kick Damien’s ass. Damien was evil from the beginning and the audience knows it but here, it’s the innocence inherent in the twins that makes them so creepy. It’s all just fun and games even when someone gets hurt. The reactions and knowing looks of denial coming from the other characters are subtle and realistic.
The cinematography here by Robert Surtees is vibrant and at times almost feels like a fairytale and yet it conveys a sense of the sinister malevolence that lurks just underneath the surface. The score by Jerry Goldsmith is evocative and frightening and unfolds in sync with the narrative. Listen to the gentle whistling theme that we hear in the beginning. When you first hear it, it evokes childhood innocence but when it’s repeated again at the very end, you realize its twisted and disturbing nature. It has morphed with the tone of the film and makes you realize that that simple tune is just as deceptive as the narrative you’ve been watching. This score precedes The Omen by about 4 years and those familiar tolling bells make an appearance here, but in a more subtle fashion. They make their first appearance when the Great Game is first played and it’s the perfect introduction.
In years to come, many films would try to emulate this one. The Good Son with Macaulay Culkin is an obvious stab at trying to reinvent this film for the 90’s but fails miserably in it’s neutered narrative. The Other succeeds exactly because it pulls no punches. This is uncompromised storytelling at its best told with a dark, perverse sense of poetry that would impress Edgar Allan Poe. It’s a film worth getting wrapped up in this Halloween. See it just go into it fresh like it’s 1972 all over again.