In the 34 years he worked as a Hollywood filmmaker, Robert Mulligan left us with so many wonderful films about children. Who can forget Jimmy Piersall in Fear Strikes Out (1957), Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), Joe Ferone in Up the Down Staircase (1967) or Dani Trant in The Man in the Moon (1991)? They were kids who dared to explore the classrooms, backyards and neighborhood streets of their youth, never once knowing what they'd find. They were the heroes in the films of a director who specialized in making movies about the wonders of discovery.
For my money, though, the most interesting period in Mulligan’s career occurred in the early 1970’s with what I consider to be his two finest films: Summer of ‘42 (1971) and The Other (1972). If Summer of ‘42 was enchanting in its description of a boy who experiences first love, then The Other is chilling in its portrait of a boy who has learned how to kill.
On the day Robert Mulligan died, the first movie I thought about was The Other. Not To Kill A Mockingbird. Not Summer of '42. No, not even Same Time, Next Year (1978) but, oddly enough, The Other. Ever since my childhood I had being vaguely familiar with the movie because of Mulligan’s name and because I had often seen the VHS in video stores during my youth. Then, in October 2008, I took a deep breath and rented it for the first time. I was absolutely shellshocked. It was one of the scariest movies I had ever seen. And by the time of Mulligan’s death a couple of months later, on December 20, 2008, I still had not recovered from the experience of watching the movie. I don’t believe I ever have.
If you haven’t seen The Other, be sure to watch the theatrical trailer first. It will set the mood for you. It won’t give away any of the important plot details, but it will give you an idea that you’re in for a real treat. If you’re planning on watching the movie, please read no further—save this piece until later. You’ll be missing out on one of the most jaw-dropping twists in American cinema if you allow someone to spoil for you the secrets of Mulligan’s horror movie masterpiece.
Mulligan opens The Other with roughly the same kind of shot he used to open To Kill A Mockingbird, when he moved us along black-and-white treetops before settling us down into the “tired old town” of 1930’s Maycomb. The Other, however, is set in the countryside of 1930’s Pequot Landing, where everybody knows everybody and people are spiteful of that “dirty Democrat” Roosevelt in the White House. Mulligan and his director of photography, Robert Surtees, begin the film by illuminating on the shiny colors of the Pequot Landing treetops as they move us deep into a lush, green forest before slowly closing in on a little boy in a yellow shirt, kneeling in a hidden clearing. His name is Niles Perry.
He is eleven years old. He is a kid you couldn’t possibly dislike no matter how hard you tried. He has a loving family: Aunt Vee (Norma Connolly), Uncle George (Lou Frizzell), Winnie (Loretta Leversee), the pregnant Torrie (Jenny Sullivan) and her husband, Rider (a young John Ritter). He has a doting Russian grandmother, Ada (Uta Hagen), the warmest person in his life. He carries around a tobacco tin which contains, among other things, a peregrine ring (“Peregrine for Perry”) as well as a small object wrapped in blue paper mache. And, most importantly, he has a best friend who looks exactly like him, talks exactly like him, and shares his exact same birthday: his twin brother, Holland.
But as the movie gets rolling, we sense that something is wrong. Mulligan has set up such a nice, cozy atmosphere for the audience that we can tell right off the bat that there's something fishy going on here. In every other scene, we see young Niles exclaiming “Yowsah!” every time he encounters something exciting, and we find it strangely off-putting. We see him beaming, “I love you, Ada!” at every chance he gets to see his Russian grandmother. There's got to be an explanation. Why is this kid is so happy and hyper? Why is his twin brother his only friend? Where is their father? How come their reclusive mother, Alexandra (Diana Muldaur), never comes down the stairs? Why does she weep every time she sees that sealed-off well outside in the front yard? We notice that the Perry family is reading, over the breakfast table, a newspaper reporting on the arrest of the Lindbergh child murderer. Torrie offers to take the newspaper up to the mother, but then Winnie says not to bring it up because it will “only upset her.” What does that mean?
Oh, and Holland. Holland is bad. He slingshots a rock into the bedroom mirror. He suffocates a pet rat. He terrorizes their neighbor, Mrs. Rowe (Portia Nelson), and then, when sent over to her house to apologize, shows up on her doorstep dressed in magician’s attire and casually invites himself into her home (like Jimmy Piersall inviting himself into Mary’s apartment in Fear Strikes Out). Once inside, he impresses Mrs. Rowe with his harmonica skills (“You’re musical!” she remarks, echoing Dorothy and Hermie’s “music” conversation in Summer of ’42), offers to put on a show for her, and then scares her to death—literally. He’s even able to solve the problem of Russell (Clarence Crow), the chubby kid who threatens to tell on him and Niles when he spies them carrying around that forbidden peregrine ring. Niles is uncomfortable carrying the ring around, but his twin brother would rather not bear its burden. “I told you you can have it,” Holland hisses to him. “It’s yours, and I don’t ever want it back!” The fact is, neither Niles nor Holland are allowed to be carrying the ring. It’s supposed to be buried.
Does anybody know about all the mischief Holland is causing? Niles does, but the only one he can confide his troubles to is Ada, who listens to Niles when he’s not feeling well and tries to console him by having him play “the game”, a meditative technique in which Niles can, for example, take the point of view of a raven as it flies over the Perry farm. This is one of the most visually imaginative sequences in the movie, as Mulligan actually has the camera take the point of view of the raven while it soars over Pequot Landing. We listen to Jerry Goldsmith’s lovely score, as it romanticizes the beauty of the moment—and then, for some strange reason, starts hitting more evil notes upon glancing at the sharp prongs of a nearby pitchfork. Later, Holland will find this pitchfork and smuggle it into the haystack of a barn, and then Russell will land on it and die.
It is only a matter of time before the evil deeds of Holland are found out. We see him and Niles running around through the tents of a circus, observing the act of a “damned phony” Chinese magician (Ed Bakey) and then nearly getting caught by a performer with a disfigured face. They find an alien baby in a bottle. Will that give them any ideas? Holland stares in disbelief when Niles tries to tell him about Ada’s belief that a red angel will one day greet them in the moment of death, and take them to Heaven. “How do you know she wouldn’t take you to hell?” Holland asks. “Angels don’t go to hell!” Niles retorts. “Only BAD people do.” Of course, Holland is unmoved by his brother’s warnings. Certainly it doesn’t stop him from attacking their mother and then pushing her down the stairs.
That is when a lightbulb goes off in Ada’s head. She finally catches on to what the twins are doing. But why does she only punish Niles, and not Holland? The scene in which she drags Niles to a cemetery starts out oddly; why in the world, we ask ourselves, has Mulligan taken us here? Where is this going? What does it have anything to do with the plot? And then, as Niles screams out for his brother, Ada forces him to look directly at a gravestone sitting before him, as the terrible truth—as well as the movie’s deadly secret—is revealed, burning our eyes and ringing in our ears at the sound of Ada’s vicious voice: “HOLLAND IS DEAD! REMEMBER? ON HIS BIRTHDAY! HE IS DEAD, NILES!”
Now, I’m going to stop there for a moment. Let me ask you: did you anticipate this scene? Were you able to figure out the twist beforehand? To be perfectly honest, I did not. Maybe it’s because I was a junior in high school at the time and had not seen too many movies like this, but for me, at least, the secret of The Other came as an unexpected shock. Even today, it is hard for me to accept. For others, though, it might already be obvious to tell that Niles is doing Holland’s bad deeds all by himself. One way of figuring it out, I suppose, is by taking into account that Holland never talks with anyone else but Niles. Niles talks to everybody in the Perry household all by himself. I guess what threw me off are two things: a) that Niles and Holland look so much alike that, when I first saw the film, it was sometimes hard for me to tell which is which, and b) that Ada and Alexandra both acknowledge Holland’s existence at key points in the film, proving at the very least that Holland is more than just an imaginary friend to Niles. We know that he is, or was, a real person.
Or maybe the reason why I wasn’t quite able to second-guess the movie accurately is because, putting it simply, Mulligan was a great filmmaker. Some would be tempted to call The Other his response to Psycho (and, actually, Hitchcock's Frenzy was also released in '72), but I think The Other should be thought of more as Mulligan’s Frankenstein story. Ada has been allowing Niles to keep Holland alive in his mind, without quite realizing the horrible consequences of what she is doing. “Oh God, I have done this thing!” she cries to a confused Niles. “I did not know how far it had gone… I only did it because I love you.” And so she does. But by allowing Niles to become a schizophrenic, she has inadvertently created a devilish little beast. In a later scene, Niles and Holland are talking again, this time with Niles being ridiculed by his dead twin: “Look, little brother! Getting scared isn’t gonna do any good! Besides, if you get scared, you won’t be able to play the game at all! And I won’t be around, then!” As Mulligan pulls back the camera, he reveals that Niles is, in fact, talking to a chair. And we notice that Ada is over on the steps, listening.
As I’ve written in some of my other pieces on Mulligan’s films, good parental guidance, and/or a lack thereof, often plays a strong role in some of his best works. If Atticus Finch represents the best possible parent a child could have, then Karl Malden’s John Piersall in Fear Strikes Out, who pushes his son to the point of mental breakdown, is almost indefinitely the nadir. Sam Waterston in The Man in the Moon is sort of like a compromise between the two: strict to his daughters, sometimes to an unnecessary degree, but because he cares and worries about them. Alan Alda's George in Same Time, Next Year is distraught over losing his son to combat in Vietnam, and, in his anguish, votes for Goldwater in hopes that he’ll drop the bomb.
But the mother in The Other, Diana Muldaur’s Alexandra, is different. Having gone insane, she is too much in grievance over her dead son and her dead husband (whom Niles also must have murdered) to be aware of what her still-living son is doing. Therefore, it is Ada who has to serve as Niles’ parental figure—and yet she treats Niles like a best friend, not like a pupil. She makes it clear to Niles that she had always thought his ghostly conversations with Holland would someday pass, and she forbids him to play “the game” ever again. But this, of course, does not stop him. He resets, and the whole thing starts all over again.
The movie’s screenplay was written by Thomas Tryon, adapted from his own book. He wasn't in love with how the film turned out, stating: "Oh, no. That broke my heart. Jesus. That was very sad," he complained in a 1977 interview. Tryon was especially unkind about Robert Mulligan, whom he couldn't even refer to by name; he merely dismissed the film as "badly cut and faultily directed" and and complained that he never got to direct it himself: "It was all step-by-step up to the point of whether I was going to become a director or not. The picture got done mainly because the director who did it wanted to do that property, and he was a known director; he was a known commodity."
One wishes Tryon could have elaborated more on his criticisms. To him, the film was a disaster. To so many others (including fans of his book), it is, to this very day, still a very extraordinary experience.
The cast is impeccable. Uta Hagen brings out the warmth and the terrified realizations of Ada, at once the nicest person in the movie as well as, in some ways, the cruelest. Diana Muldaur is over-the-top as the mother, but she plays the role well, and we fear deeply for her as she sits paralyzed while Niles reads to her a prophetic story about the fable of the “changeling”. John Ritter, probably the most famous actor in the cast, has a small role, but evidently he went on to remember his work with Mulligan: Ritter later did an episode of 8 Simple Rules in which his character does an Atticus Finch impersonation and then has to explain, “To Kill A Mockingbird? Directed by Robert Mulligan? One of the greatest... never mind.” Victor French, who later appeared in Mulligan’s The Nickel Ride (1974), has the most sympathetic role in the film as Mr. Angelini, the sad groundskeeper who is blamed for many of Niles/Holland’s misdeeds and is then shipped off to the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit, reminding us of Tom Robinson in Mockingbird. Lou Frizzell, another one of Mulligan’s favorite actors (he played the bemused pharmacist in Summer of ’42), is hilarious as the boy’s smiling uncle, confidant that all is going well on the Perry farm. Then he opens a wine cask containing a terrible surprise.
I haven’t yet mentioned the boys who played Niles and Holland. Their names were Chris and Marty Udvarnoky. After this film, they packed up their bags, left Hollywood and never made a movie again. They both enjoyed life back in New Jersey and joined the medical profession. I learned recently that Chris, who played Niles, passed away earlier this week. Chris’ obituary doesn’t even mention the film.
I’d like to finish by talking about the ending. I have never forgotten it. In the wake of a sudden tragedy, Niles retreats to the darkness of the family barn and calls out to Holland, demanding an explanation. Ada attempts to get him to snap out of it, but this time Niles has refused to accept the truth; he hits Ada (like Jimmy Piersall hitting back his father in Fear Strikes Out), and continues to call out to a brother who isn't there. Finally, Ada decides to destroy her mad creation once and for all: like Natalie Wood blowing up the beach house at the conclusion of Inside Daisy Clover, she decides to set fire to the entire barn, and burn Niles alive. She even throws herself into the fire, thus transforming herself into a kind of martyr—an angel in hell.
And then we come to the final shot of the film, which takes place the next morning and is absolutely horrifying: Mulligan’s camera tracks up to the bedroom window of the Perry house, where Niles, shockingly unscathed by the fires, stares down at the ruins of the burned barn. “Niles!” Aunt Vee calls up. “Wash up, now! Time for lunch!” We hear the echoing whistle of Holland over the soundtrack, and then Mulligan freezes the frame on Niles’ evil, ensaring face.