The Other Review
In 1971, Robert Mulligan made Summer of ‘42, a shamelessly self-indulgent wallow in the problems of adolescence which is either painfully corny or irresistibly nostalgic depending on personal taste. I’ve always enjoyed it, if more for Robert Surtees’ excellent cinematography and Michel Legrand’s music score than for the central storyline. However, it pales in comparison with his next film, a virtually unknown period horror movie called The Other. Probably because it was very hard to see for the best part of twenty years, The Other has been underrated but now it’s available on DVD, the strengths of the film are apparent. Reuniting most of the crew from Summer of ‘42, Mulligan creates a quite unique atmosphere which combines poignant nostalgia with understated menace and relishes a tone of sunlit horror which is highly reminiscent of the work of Ray Bradbury and, later, Ramsey Campbell. The staidness and static nature of some of his work is absent here as he plays around with distorted camera angles, breathtaking aerial photography and prowling tracking shots.
Holland and Niles Perry (the Udvarnoky twins) are twelve year old brothers who seem to have an idyllic existence on a middle-American farm during a long, hot summer in the mid-1930s. But idylls are made to be broken and not everything is at it seems. The boys’ father has died after falling down the steps of the apple cellar and their mother has never quite got over her grief. Meanwhile, their obnoxious cousin falls onto a pitchfork in the barn and Holland is behaving in an increasingly unbalanced manner. The family have no time for the boys and only Grandma Ada (Hagen) seems to genuinely care for them, encouraging Niles in his imaginative life by telling him that he can transfer himself into the souls of animals and other people. As the summer wears on, events continue to take a sinister turn and Ada begins to realise that her encouragement of the boys’ fantasy life may not have been such a good idea.
The Other is a rich and complex film, deliberately elusive in the way that it evades definitive interpretation. It’s basically a puzzle which has no definite solution, although careful viewing will clear up most things which may at first seem obscure. Pay attention in particular to what happens to the padlock and the discussion of the magic show which Niles and Holland plan in the apple cellar. Everything else can be pieced together with a bit of thought but the final scenes do live a certain sense of ambiguous menace which has a genuinely disturbing edge. Indeed, its this atmosphere of sun-drenched foreboding which makes the film so sinister – there’s very little graphic violence and the menace lies in the small details and the careful use of sound. Gradually, everything comes to seem ominous, even the constant buzzing of the insects and the night-time chirruping of the cicadas. It’s fascinating to note how skilfully Mulligan and his DP Robert Surtees take the brown-tinged memory look of Summer of ‘42 and turn it to more threatening ends. The lush colours, slightly over-emphasised, seem imbued with a slightly baleful meaning and the sun itself begins to reveal a world which has a tangible sense of rot and corruption. The central notion of ‘the game’, encouraged by Ada who doesn’t realise the immense impact it has on the boys, is a vivid metaphor for childish play which turns accidentally malevolent.
Mulligan has always been noted for his ability to work with young actors, ranging from Mary Badham and Phillip Alford in To Kill A Mockingbird to Reese Witherspoon in The Man In The Moon and his careful direction of Chris and Martin Udvarnoky allows them to give completely convincing performances which are completely devoid of the cuteness which so often afflicts child actors. This is clearly a film about malevolent children in the tradition of The Bad Seed but it's a lot more credible and less melodramatic. Both are competent actors and it’s a shame that they don’t seem to have done anything since. Martin is particularly impressive as the decidedly unsavoury Holland. They’re helped immensely by the chance to play opposite the great Uta Hagen, an actress who didn’t make too many screen appearances but can be seen at her best here and in her one-scene role in The Boys From Brazil. She spent most of her career on the New York stage – creating the role of Martha in “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf” – but was kept out of Hollywood for her association with Paul Robeson and only made inroads into film during the 1970s. This is a fine tribute to her abilities and she brings an intense, scary strength to the part of Ada when some other actresses would have overdone the fluffy grandmother bit. Her final scene where she invokes the ‘Angel of the Brighter Day’ offers a memorable image of obsessive madness in a white nightdress; an iconic moment.
The technical credits of the production are exemplary. I’ve already mentioned Surtees but mention is also due to Albert Brenner, another ’42 veteran, whose period design is absolutely flawless. Equally impressive, and ingenious, is Jerry Goldsmith’s music score which, much like John Williams’ music for Altman’s The Long Goodbye, takes one central theme and plays countless variations on it. First heard in a melodic, nostalgic string-scored main theme, it soon becomes associated with Holland and begins to evoke a chill whether whistled, played on a fairground Wurlitzer or blown on a harmonica. At this time, Goldsmith was one of Fox’s major in-house composers and it’s one of his best works from a fertile period which also included Patton, Planet of the Apes, The Mephisto Waltz and Bandolero!.
The following paragraph includes some spoilers for the film which may affect your enjoyment.
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|It’s an hour into the film before we discover that Holland is dead and Niles merely imagines him to be alive but I imagine most viewers will pick this up quite early on from the way that Holland never interacts with anyone except Niles. This could be considered a flaw but if you do pick up on it, then it simply adds another level to the film. The question of exactly what Holland was responsible for is another interesting issue. Is he actually responsible for their father’s death, for example, or is this simply Niles exaggerating the behaviour trends which he knows to have existed. We also have the question of exactly what Niles is responsible for and how much can be put down to accident which he then embellishes in his mind. This all adds to the richness of the film, taking us inside a deeply damaged consciousness without being pretentious or precious about it. The final scene is deeply ambivalent and much more so, if memory serves, than the novel.|
The Other is a very unusual film which is hard to classify. It flits between nostalgia piece and horror film in a capricious manner which some viewers may find hard to take. It’s also slow-burning in the extreme and this may make some impatient. But you really should stick with it because the second half builds up to a climax which is unforgettably chilling, all the more so for being so full-blooded after the calm build-up. Mulligan’s pacing, sometimes so erratic in his other films, is spot-on here, lulling us into a sense of security and then turning the tables with ruthless efficiency. If your idea of horror is limited to blood, gore and monsters, then this film might disappoint. But if you’re a genre fan who appreciates the subtleties of M.R. James, Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson as well as the gross-outs of Fulci and Romero, then this is an absolute must. It’s one of the best horror films most people have never seen and, ‘12’ certificate and all, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Anyone who saw The Other on first release or on one of its rare TV showings may well be eager to see it again. Eureka’s disc is the first release of the film on DVD and it serves it quite well.
The film is presented in full-screen format. I can’t be completely certain but it looks to me as if it is an open matte presentation. There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything missing from the sides and there is plenty of room on top and bottom of the image so I assume it was matted for cinema release. There is a fair amount of scratching in places and the look of the film is a little too grainy for my taste but the general impression is very pleasing. The strong colours of the film need a good transfer and the DVD does well by them. There is a reasonable amount of detail although the slightly soft-focus photography style is adhered to and the main flaw is some visible compression artifacting during darker sequences.
The mono soundtrack is exceptionally good, presenting Goldsmith’s score with depth and precision. Dialogue is eminently clear throughout.
The extras are limited but interesting. We get the original theatrical trailer, which gives too much away, and a small photo gallery which is accompanied by the main theme. Two DVD-ROM features are offered – the original screenplay and Jerry Goldsmith’s original music cues, both presented in Adobe Acrobat format.
It’s been a long time since I last saw The Other and it was a pleasure to get the chance to see it again. Eureka’s DVD offers a reasonably good visual presentation and is generally recommended.