Thanks to Kendall Reviews for being so kind to host Past Due, a semi-regular column of lesser-known genre fiction, and the celluloid nightmares they inspired. Our first deep dive into the dusty stacks of adaptations due a second look is a full circle forgotten gem, where a writer’s self-imposed exodus from Hollywood lead right back to the silver screen, 1971’s The Other.
The early 70s saw something of a revival in mainstream interest in horror novels, with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist becoming a full-on cultural phenomenon that also spawned a classic cinematic adaptation. While certainly one of the best-remembered of the era’s offerings, that book was not the only blockbuster horror title of the year.
Fed up with show business, reputedly due to the abuse imposed by director Otto Preminger on the set of 1963’s The Cardinal, a modestly successful film and television actor had quietly reinvented himself as a novelist. His name was Thomas Tryon, and the debut book was simply titled The Other. The novel was released with perfunctory publicity in May of 1971, just a month before Blatty’s book would begin to dominate the landscape.
In the long, hot summer of 1935, 12 year old identical twins Niles and Holland Perry idle their days away on their family’s rural Connecticut farm. Their father passed suddenly the year before, leaving their mother, Alexandra, utterly broken-hearted. While still loving in her more lucid moments, most days she is barely strong enough to leave her room. An aunt, uncle and cousin have moved back from the big city to help, and the twins’ heavily pregnant older sister Torrie has arrived with her new husband in tow. Perhaps most beloved of all is Ada, the boys’ immigrant grandmother. Full of warmth and a touch of Old World mysticism, she’s the most successful of all of the adult authority figures at corralling the rambunctious twins.
Banding together has helped the family keep the worst fallout of both the tragedy and the Great Depression at bay, but just barely. The boys have plenty of time left to their own devices, which the kindly Niles usually fills with your standard slate of adult approved playful activities. The moody and mercurial Holland finds ordinary games boring, and is fond of less wholesome pastimes. Be it pestering an older neighbor, filling the cellar with fake cat tail “snow” or keeping hold of a tobacco tin containing some secret contraband, Niles ends up both mixed up in and apologizing for Holland’s various schemes.
Soon minor mischief escalates to something darker, and the family is beset by a series of misfortunes that all appear on the surface to be accidents. What exactly is in that carefully guarded tin? What does Niles know that he is afraid of telling? As the tragedies pile up, Ada must reckon with the fact that the twins’ dangerous “games” might be rooted in the diversions she herself had taught them to play.
Contemporaneous reviews of the book were somewhat mixed. Some critics were impressed by Tryon’s transition to the literary world, praising the novel for its measured slow-burn build of atmosphere and unexpected reveals. Detractors were more dismissive of the entire endeavor as the purple prosed, overly contrived musings of a Hollywood never really was. Critical ambivalence aside, The Other became a surprise hit, spending 6 months on the bestseller list and selling some 3.5 million copies. Quickly optioned for the screen, a film version was released by 20th Century Fox in the spring of 1972.
The Other’s film was fairly faithful to the book’s base plot, with director Robert Mulligan (To Kill A Mockingbird) and cinematographer Robert Surtees keep everything at a child’s eye view, the pastoral settings bathed in warm golden light more typical of soap operas and Norman Rockwell paintings that a horror film. Tryon adapted his own novel for the screen, so the movie maintains the same careful pacing, with the first hour focusing on the relationships and unspoken tensions of the extended Perry clan. If you hadn’t read the source material or seen the trailer, it would be very easy to mistake The Other for a nostalgia-filled family drama, a rose-coloured glasses look at a bygone era.
One and done film stars Chris and Martin Udvarnoky give fine, naturalistic performances as Niles and Holland, their relative inexperience keeping them from the showy precociousness that so often punts child actors out of the realm of believability. Legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen makes one of her few on-screen appearances as Ada, and her finely modulated performance carries the complex plot with ease, balancing a grandmother’s tendency toward overindulgence with a quiet strength that glues the family together. Such a large ensemble cast leaves several characters underutilized (Diana Muldaur as Alexandra does little more than float into frame once or twice, blink and you’ll miss TV legend, John Ritter, as the boys’ new brother in law), but given that everything hinges on the tragic ties between Ada and her grandsons, the overall effect works.
It may seem counter-intuitive to keep a genre film so devoted to careful character development and lush visuals over overt scares. However, this same loyalty to intricately developed relationships and a polished aesthetic is what gives the shocks such unsettling impact when they hit. The violence in the film isn’t gory or explicit, relying more on a suggestive cutaway and sharp focus on the reactions of the family after each grisly discovery. Modern genre viewers will likely suss out the first “twist” with little effort, but it is the least important of the film’s reveals.
As the body count rises, it’s clear that something terrible is happening on the Perry Farm. Its onus might be supernatural, or something more ordinary. What gives the film such a lingering sense of creeping dread is that whatever the cause of the events on screen, it’s very real. So utterly natural that it doesn’t need to hide in dark shadows, or creeping corners of the lingering grotesque. The evil has been staring the characters and the audience in the face, bathed in that painterly light, the entire time. By the time anyone connects the dots, it’s too late to save them, and the viewer has no choice but to sit back and watch the inevitable.
The Other wasn’t nearly as successful as its source novel, and had a relatively short theatrical run. The promo materials primed audiences for something in a more familiarly lurid “killer kid” territory, not a quietly unsettling mix of nostalgia and downbeat 70s nihilism coy enough to merit a (then) PG rating. A re-edited cut (with a less ambiguous climax) frequently played on television through the mid-70s, before both the book and the film started to slowly slide out of the public consciousness.
While modern critical reception to reissues of both the book and the movie has been very positive, it remains somewhat undervalued and underseen, given the lack of both a major publishing push, or any easy availability on streaming services and home media. New York Review Books did put the novel back in circulation as part of their “Classics” series in 2012, where it has quietly remained ever since. The film hasn’t been quite so lucky, with the 2006 20th Century Fox DVD, 2013 Twilight Time Blu Ray and 2015 Cinema Cult Blu Ray all out of print.
The Other’s slow-moving slice of New England gothic certainly didn’t fit in with most of the larger trends in either film or fiction at the time of its release. Given the recent revival of interest in both so-called “arthouse” and folk horror, the moment seems right for The Other to finally receive the loud and proud cult classic status both versions easily deserve. It’s a rare case where the book and the film are of the same approximate quality, and legitimately feel like they belong in the same universe. Patient viewers and readers will be rewarded with a genuinely creepy little chiller with above-average production values and an eerie sun-drenched beauty all its own. What’s even more fearful than the dark? Knowing that the exact same terrors are still lurking in the broad, bright daylight.
G.G. Graham is a cult film cryptid, horror hag and exploitation film explorer of the dusty and disreputable corners of cinema history. As a street preacher for Z grade cinema, G.G. writes for multiple genre film sites. They are also the head midnight movie monster over at their own blog, www.midnightmoviemonster.com and can be followed on Twitter @msmidnightmovie.