[13 October 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It is safe to say that, among the movies made in that defining cinematic decade of the ‘70s, The Other is one of the best—a near-flawless example of tone and storytelling melded with wonderfully effective material and meaning. In the hands of Academy Award nominee Robert Mulligan (responsible for To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of ‘42, among many others) and adapted by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tyron from his own best-selling novel, this paranormal period piece about psychologically unsound twins takes elements of The Bad Seed and twists them into an amazing American Gothic. It utilizes the recognizable realities of an old-fashioned family in the middle of a picturesque, pastoral setting and then scans the surfaces for the ugly underneath.
Eventually, we start to see the horrors hiding behind the antique old-world gentility, Like all great genre efforts, The Other uses a familiar foundation—in this case, a child’s reaction to death and other domestic strife—to forge a significant supernatural pathway. Tyron wants us to see the unsettled state of youth and how it can easily, and eerily, turn over to the dark side. Through an expert maintenance of atmosphere and action, along with a directorial flair that never telegraphs the tricks or overemphasizes certain elements, we wind up with a significant motion picture masterpiece, a missing link in the growing maturation of the overall genre.
This is not a rock ‘em, sock ‘em shocker however, even without its delicious third act denouement. No, like the slowly decaying portrait of Dorian Gray, Mulligan and Tyron use the idyllic backdrop of the Perry estate—all Victorian flounce and spreading countryside—and slowly begin to peel back the paint. Soon, evil is uncloaked in the secrets being stored inside—all the dead bodies, all the shattered souls, all the unspoken horrors. One of the most successful elements of The Other is its perfectly paced storytelling. Mulligan never rushes his reveal, never hurries his delicate horrors. Instead, he moves us through this summer of suffering and has us in the palm of his knotty narrative right from the start.
We are intrigued by the presence of a mother pining away in her self-imposed exile, of the fruit cellar where father died, the grouchy neighbor hinting at the devilment contained inside the twins, and the odd symbiotic siblings who seem carved out of one complete identity. Setting each one of these inherently interesting pieces inside his jaded jigsaw, Mulligan makes us care about the characters and the circumstances first. Then, once he has us hooked, he is more than capable of turning the suspense screws. A literal reflection of the personal fears onscreen, The Other is so magnificently moody that future filmmakers should study it for lessons in how to create, and control, angst and dread.
That’s because, at its heart, The Other is a film that uses calm and ease to manage corruption and evil. Its story is a symbol of both sides of the human personality, in ways both obvious (the twins) and less iconic (the mother’s madness, Ada’s affection). While it does trade on substance that is both stereotypical (the bad-seed brother) and surreal (the “game” that the boys and Ada play), this masterful horror film never once loses its amazing, frightening focus. We feel the cold hand of destiny enveloping the Perrys in its vice-like (and filled) grip. We sense the damaging truths lying just beneath the frilly lace and country quaintness. Victims make themselves known from the moment we lay eyes on them—they pretend to see beneath the surface and must pay the ultimate price for doing so.
Yet the villainy here is varied—in the eyes of a child, the lost look of a fractured mother, the acquiescing affection of an elderly grandmother. Some or all play a part in the death surrounding The Other’s often ordinary elements. When we get to the telling twists—made a little less effective because of time and familiarity, not anything inherent in the movie—we feel somewhat vindicated for our suspicions. Then The Other takes another, more mean-spirited step and, suddenly, all bets are off. The final shot fulfills all the promise only hinted at during the rest of the film, and makes us reconsider everything that came before.