Robert Mulligan’s “The Other” Is A Dated Relic Blissfully Unaware Of The American Horror Film Revolution
Director Robert Mulligan’s career is best remembered for the classic To Kill A Mockingbird. However, in 1972 he tried his hand at horror blissfully unaware of the genre revolution about to occur in America…
The Other, a slow-burning supernatural drama from To Kill A Mockingbird director Robert Mulligan, arrived on the cusp of great change for American horror. After its release in 1972, audiences would witness William Friedkin’s The Exorcist before Tobe Hooper’s cinematic version of Grievous Bodily Harm in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Steven Spielberg’s classic monster movie Jaws. The middle and late 1970s saw a revolution within the genre with audiences, particularly of the younger generation, flocking to see a new breed of terror. These films were footnoted by a relentless depiction of human destruction and violence, firstly of the off-screen, suggested kind before the 1980s ushered in an era of horror cinema doused in blood.
It is because of this that Mulligan’s almost forgotten The Other feels oddly out of place, as if the acclaimed director wasn’t privy to the hushed tones of his more daring contemporaries. His film was widely praised on its release but this was before the horror genre got a much needed injection of new life from directors like Friedkin and Hooper who had points to prove, not least their aspirations as independent filmmakers operating outside of a studio system wary of welcoming them in to the inner circle. Mulligan, however, was a seasoned and well-respected filmmaker when he made The Other. Known for his humanistic, honest and simplistic style, he was a director very much in the classical mould. That’s perhaps the key problem with The Other.
The film feels like Little House on the Prairie with out of place supernatural undertones. Mulligan’s long, slow moving camera movements lack energy or invention, and only disappointingly aid the film’s pedestrian narrative and telegraphed twists. Its un-cinematic style could be forgiven if there was intrigue in the mystery but, not only does it unfold painfully slowly, its second act revelation comes as no surprise. Indeed, the twist is so obvious you’re left thinking there must be more to this story than meets the eye but there isn’t. Apart from the Grandmother encouraging what could be termed child abuse through the act of astral projection, we’re left waiting – what seems like an endless amount of time – for Mulligan and his screenwriter Tom Tryon (who adapts his own book) to catch up with us. We’re left with a film that is not only badly dated today, but was actually stuck in the starting blocks on its original release.
The film begins on the sun-kissed land of a Connecticut farm as a pair of brothers – identical twins Niles (Chris Udvarnoky) and Holland (Martin Udvarnoky) – mischievously play games with carefree abandon. Holland appears to be the dominant figure, often coaxing Niles into pranks he’s not fond of. We learn of a tobacco tin where Niles keeps secret trinkets including a ring given to him by Holland. We also meet other family members including their bedridden mother, grieving over the death of her husband, the boys’ father, and their grandmother Ada (Uta Hagen), the major maternal figure in the boys’ lives and their source of guidance in a strange game they play involving a kind of astral projection.
There is a sense of strangeness pervading throughout this seemingly idyllic setting but is far from subtle. The early part of the film hinges upon a twist that doesn’t work because there is no sense of surprise: you’ll known exactly what’s going on from the first scene. It therefore becomes quite a chore awaiting Mulligan to catch up with an audience already way ahead of the story, while Chris Udvarnoky as Niles (who gets the majority of screen time) is too wooden to really engage. His real life brother’s more menacing approach has more impact but his amoral motivation isn’t far removed from monstrous caricature.
Perhaps the film’s lack of subtly comes from the fact Mulligan isn’t at ease with the material. For the director of films like moving drama To Kill a Mockingbird (undoubtedly a classic) and coming-of-age film Summer of ’72, The Other represents further opportunity for Mulligan to investigate some of the themes he’s always admired. Namely, the innocence or lack of, of youth, the traditions and politics of rural American communities, and the era itself in the years prior to World War II. It therefore came as no shock to me that elements of the macabre felt like unfortunate contrivances getting in the way of Mulligan’s real dramatic passions. I’m surprised the director didn’t remove all elements of horror from the film in order to concentrate on the impact of a father’s death on his wife and children making ends meet in a rural, parochial community.
No wonder Tom Tryon, who wrote the novel which inspired the film and also worked on its screenplay, was disappointed by the finished product. He bemoaned the casting despite being happy with the twins’ performances and, while suggesting it might have been his own script at fault, described Mulligan’s direction as “faulty”. He also felt the director was hired for The Other primarily because he had notoriety, not necessarily because he was the best fit. I agree with him. The Other feels at odds with itself, on the one hand being a story of familial tragedy, on the other a power play between young brothers with an is-it isn’t-it supernatural undertone. If Mulligan could extricate all sense of the otherworldy from this story, I’m sure he would. The horror is therefore, knowingly or unknowingly stifled, almost artificial.
As an example, there’s a scene when Holland decides to give his cousin a lesson he will never forget. After the boy witnesses the twins in their secret hideaway and threatens to reveal their whereabouts, Holland puts a pitchfork in the hay where the children play. On-screen we see the cousin about to jump into the hay as he clearly often has in the past, off-screen we hear a scream with a long-shot of the barn. The scream resembles that of a child whose foot has just been stepped on. It’s comically unnatural.
The Other feels like a horror film from a bygone era, a product of an American film industry falling behind Europe’s passionate and uninhibited filmmakers. The USA would catch up quickly, and once again lead the way, but this only further highlights how dated The Other appears to be. While it admirably favours a suggestive approach, Mulligan’s un-cinematic styling (lots of made-for-TV mid-shots and slow camera pans) and pedestrian pacing suck any interest from a potentially appealing mystery. The mid-film twist is perhaps most damning, offering no sense of surprise. Yet due to the plot hinging on this supposed enigma, we’re left checking our watches waiting for the story to move forward. Indeed, the film progresses painfully slowly to an admittedly unsettling climax that fittingly plays upon the mystery to leave some questions unanswered but it’s too little, too late. Way too late.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Robert Mulligan
Written by: Tom Tryon (also the novel on which the film is based)
Starring: Uta Hagen, Diana Muldaur, Chris Udvarnoky, Martin Udvarnoky
More reviews: Latest | Archive
The Other is released on Blu-ray in the UK for the first time Feb 23rd 2015 courtesy of Eureka Entertainment Ltd