The film version of Thomas Tyron’s bestseller has been unfairly overlooked by horror fans but the subtle chills still work today.
CAUTION: if you know nothing about The Other, this review contains a spoiler.
Although generally forgotten by all but the most enthusiastic horror fiction readers today, Thomas Tryon’s novel The Other was a big deal in 1971, being an unexpected hit with the mainstream audience (long before the likes of Stephen Kings made that normal) and was immediately snapped up for a big (or biggish) budget, Hollywood adaptation – still a rare thing for a horror project at the time. In that sense, the film (and book) sits alongside the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie and other high-profile literary adaptations of the era, somewhat removed from everything else that was going on in the genre at the time. Yet like the novel it is based on, The Other seems somewhat forgotten today – not exactly a ‘lost’ movie but certainly one that no longer seems to have the critical plaudits of those other literary adaptations. Part of this might be because of the film’s lack of sensationalism – this is a slow-burn creeper that eschews explicit horror and has the sort of nostalgic sentimentality hiding dark secrets that would become the stock in trade of Stephen King (though King adaptations always knew how to put aside the wistfulness in favour of graphic shocks). Made a decade later, it might have had a better reputation – or alternatively might have become just another of the 1980s ghost stories that attempted to shift the genre away from the slasher and zombie movies but all failed commercially, like The Changeling and Ghost Story – but The Other appeared as cinema became harder, grittier and more explicit, and never quite fitted in with its 1970s horror peers.
Set in 1935, the film initially feels like an idealised summer story of childhood – very much the stuff of King or Ray Bradbury. Young twins Niles and Holland Perry (Chris Udvarnoky and Martin Udvarnoky) play around their farmhouse home, with Holland very much the ‘evil twin’, though his crimes seem a little more than the lightweight mischief-making you’d expect from any small boy. Niles is very much the follower, fixated on a tin box of treasures that he carries with him at all times, treasures that include his grandfather’s ring that Holland – the older of the twins and so the ‘rightful’ owner – has given him. It’s not all fun and games at the farm. The twins’ mother (Diana Muldaur) has become a shut-in after the accidental death of the father, and Niles is effectively being raised by his Russian emigrant grandmother, Ada (Uta Hagen), who encourages him in what she calls ‘the game’ – a psychic projection out of his body that we are never quite certain is real or just a flight of fancy.
As the summer goes on, bad things start to happen, oddly to those who have slighted Niles and Holland. Cousin Russell accidentally leaps onto a pitchfork and is killed. An elderly neighbour has a heart attack as Holland performs a magic trick. Their mother is pushed down the stairs after finding the ring (and another, more sinister treasure) and left paralyzed. Clearly, Holland really is a bad seed. The only problem is that Holland might not even be alive…
Robert Mulligan had previously directed To Kill a Mockingbird and brings a similar sense of wistful nostalgia, authentic period and a growing sense of horror beneath the superficially sentimental childhood world of this film. It does mean that as a horror movie, it takes an awfully long time to get started – even Jerry Goldsmith’s music suggests a dewy-eyed tale of more innocent times than a horror story for much of the early part of the film. It’s perhaps lulling the audience into a false sense of security, though of course unless you come to this film entirely blind (and promotional materials will always make that difficult), you’ll be aware that things are going to get ugly as the story continues. Still, the film plays carefully with its revelations, ensuring that the twist comes as something of a surprise unless you already know about it – as I suspect most modern viewers who know of the film will do – and even then, it still packs a punch, and allows the film to subsequently visit some very, very dark ideas during the final act.
OK, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty now. Viewers who somehow still haven’t guessed the plot twist – and if you’re a horror fan and haven’t, then shame on you, frankly – might want to stop reading now.
Mulligan makes sure that the film maintains an internal logic as far as Holland is concerned. We never see the two boys in the same shot, and everything is seen through Niles’ eyes – of course, no one else actually sees Holland, but the film is constructed carefully enough to make sure that we don’t really notice that until after the fact. And the story is ambiguous enough for us to never really be sure if Holland is in fact a ghost – possibly summoned up by Niles playing ‘the game’ – or just a split personality of the child unable to deal with the loss of his brother. Either way, it seems clear that Niles is the one responsible for the deaths, which he can conveniently blame on his brother.
This is a film of solid performances, subtle horrors and some genuinely horrific moments – rarely has the mere sight of the top of a head seemed so distressing – that moves at its own pace and as such, will not be for everyone. Certainly, if you like your horror full-blooded, you should look elsewhere. But if you have a taste for subtle creepiness that sticks with you long after the film has finished, then you’ll find much to admire here.
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