The Cult of Childhood Insanity in The Other (1972)

*contains spoilers

“For the most part we were normal kids like anybody else,” said child actor Marty Udvarnoky (1961-) who along with his twin brother Chris (1961-2010 kidney disease) starred in director Robert Mulligan’s (1925-2008 heart disease) take on childhood insanity The Other (1972).

The movie was based on a book by actor Tom Tryon (1926-91 AIDS) and set in New England during the Great Depression in 1935. It is a remarkable film in some ways in that it shows a child who on the surface is normal but who is really volatile and more than slightly evil, even if he doesn’t actually realise it himself… Perhaps that’s just normal for all children, except some don’t outgrow the notion of imagining but instead it somehow grows into something terrible.

The Other (1972) poster
Actor and author Tom Tryon
A paperback of Tryon’s bestseller

Tryon’s tale was a bestseller back in May 1971 when it was first published and he kind of based it on his childhood with his brother in the Connecticut countryside. The novel was compared at the time to the work of William Peter Blatty (1928-2017 multiple myeloma) and his The Exorcist novel, as well as Ira Levin (1929-2007 heart attack) and his Rosemary’s Baby novel, which were both popular. Tryon was an actor who starred in the Otto Preminger (1905-86 lung cancer) movie The Cardinal (1963) but found acting unrewarding and took up writing instead.

Director of The Other, Robert Mulligan was known for his use of mental illness as a theme in some of his most successful movies and they were Fear Strikes Out (1956) starring Anthony Perkins (1932-92 AIDS) about baseball player Jimmy Piersall (1929-2017) who had a nervous breakdown at the height of his career after being pushed into the sport by his father. It’s a black and white movie which has a good lead performance and you can see why Mulligan succeeded as a director. Then there is the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) which features the character of Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley who is obviously mentally ill to the point where he is kept hidden away from society and only comes out at night.

Director Robert Mulligan
Summer of ’42 (1971) VHS cover
Chris (top) and Marty Udvarnoky

Mulligan was going to be a priest but instead liked the bottle and the company of women more and his work on To Kill a Mockingbird earned him an Oscar nomination. His most successful movie apart from that one was probably Summer of ’42 (1971). It was that film’s box office and critical success which more or less gave Mulligan the ability to choose his next project. It was after Tryon sent his script of The Other to Mulligan that the director decided to make it right away…

As I mentioned earlier, the Udvarnoky twins are central to the success of The Other. The twins were living in New Jersey at the time when they were asked to audition in New York for the parts along with dozens of other twins. This led to more rounds of auditions which ended up in California and they were finally selected for the parts. It was then that Marty said he wanted to play the evil twin… But it is Chris’s part which is far more complex.

Let me try and relate the movie and its psychic themes along with those about madness to possible reality as I briefly tell the tale of The Other. The evil twin is called Holland while ‘the other’ is named Niles… The Other – funny about that. Or is it really ‘the other’ way around?

Niles or Holland at peace with the ring?
The Other poster. Note the egg shape.
Japanese poster

Niles is at peace in the woods with the ringing sound of the insects in his ears like some sort of invaders descending upon him perhaps even playing their own game and punishing him for being in their territory. Do you hear that ringing in your ears? He is staring at a ring in his hands and the ring has a fascination which takes him away from reality for a moment. Then there is the whistling, which is almost another type of ringing eclipsing the peace created by the insects… It is his brother Holland…. Or was it Holland who was at peace staring spellbound by the ring? It is hard to tell which boy is which in this movie because they are identical. Suddenly the boys are at war with their wooden guns just like they were training for a real-life war as boys imagine and Niles runs from Holland as they go to seek more mischief…

It is often the case of one boy leading another astray and Holland seems to be the one who does most of the leading as they sneak into an elderly neighbour’s storage room to steal some preserves. Niles knocks over a jar and they are caught. Is this their first crime? There is a kind of fracture of reality already with the broken glass in The Other but we don’t really know it yet…

I was first told of the movie by my best friend’s mother when I was about eleven or twelve. It was around that age where average kids used to get up to mischief and they would lie awake in the dark and whisper to one another in bed. Niles and Holland do a lot of whispering in The Other as it is kind of like they don’t want to get caught. I was a boy just like Niles who lived partially in a make-believe world of books and movies and the belief that everybody loved everybody and that love conquered all without actually having a Christian belief. And that is another part of The Other later on in relation to Christ and angels and not really comprehending why people believe in that myth – but it sounds good anyway.

Fear Strikes Out (1956) trailer
The skull doesn’t appear in the movie

I was once living in an apartment block with my head full of voices from around the neighbourhood. It was then I kind of befriended a voice of what I believed was another boy around that same age of eleven. It was just a disembodied voice… I wouldn’t speak, I would just send my thoughts and they would be returned in a whisper like Niles in The Other. I suppose it was just mental illness rather than mental telepathy… And this illness, if it is such, is planted by events which happened in our childhood’s and formative years. I believe it is some sort of ESP… that voice as it could possibly hear what I said without speaking. But you have to believe in both in order to survive and not be permanently confined to a straight-jacket. It is something to believe in such things and another to completely live it.

The relationship between the whispering and mischievous Holland and his seemingly well-balanced and good brother grows far more complex as the movie goes on. Holland kills small animals while Niles has strange flashbacks to a possible murder.

“You killed it Holland. You killed it!,” cries Niles about a dead rat, while there is a newspaper at home on the kitchen table relating to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping which will echo in the finale.

Meanwhile the twins’ mother is a very brittle woman played by Diana Muldaur (1938-) who has suffered the great tragedy of losing her husband in an accident in the barn from which she has never fully recovered. She suspects that Niles is too perky when she is around and that he may really be a troubled soul deep down. Or is she keeping something from him?

Chris is coached in The Great Game by his grandmother
Diana Muldaur in Star Trek
Uta Hagen with then husband Jose Ferrer

But the most important character in Niles’s life is his grandmother Ada who is played by stage actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen (1919-2004 stroke) in her first movie. She has a profound influence on Niles as she teaches and coaches him in The Great Game, which is a type of psychic concentration.

“Why doesn’t Holland like Russell?,” Ada asks Niles about a cousin who will shortly die under mysterious circumstances in the barn like their father… And it is at this point that we begin to wonder if Holland is a figment of Niles’s imagination and that Ada is fostering this relationship as a further step into the make believe. Does mother know too?

“Think things I have taught you,” she tells Niles as they prepare to play The Great Game which in this case has Niles concentrate and listen and become one with a crow. His concentration happens to a point where the crow takes flight and Niles flies and sees the ground sweep past beneath him. This is for advanced players of The Game apparently or is it just the imagination of an easily-led child taking flight?

“It’s scary… free…” says Niles in mid-flight as if there really is some astral projection as opposed to his own mind playing tricks and himself believing that he really can enter the mind or soul of a bird.

Evil child movie The Godsend (1980) trailer
Astral projection … does it exist? Or is it the imagination hard at work?
Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) wrote of the philosophy of ‘the other’

When you look at the title of the book and what is missing is the ‘M’ either a good or bad “M’ and add it to other and you’ve got ‘Mother’ … It’s a stretch … and further the poster of The Other has the ‘O’ in other shaped as an egg, which symbolises the fact they who called ‘eggs’ are not fully grown or developed in a mature sense. It is that inability of some of the mentally ill to break away from their repeated every day behaviour or thinking which should’ve been outmoded once they were no longer children. It is the fractured psyche of these ‘eggs’ often trapped within the shell, either happily or unhappily or both and are unable to ever break free. They possibly also don’t know or aren’t attuned to the psychic realm. We suspect Niles and Holland like many twins have an intimate bond like no other.

The Other in terms of philosophy, is seen as a stranger… It is also seen as different from the Self, or Us or of the Same… For the person whose psyche is disturbed to the point where they hear voices and see people, but don’t see a psychic aspect which connects them, the world in general can grow up to be something scary indeed… And we wonder if Niles is such a person! Would you like to believe forever that it is all in your head and nothing else exists in The Big PIcture?

As for The Great Game, Holland and Niles use it on a magician at a carnival so he can lose his concentration so something, to a degree, terrible will happen… Kind of like their father who fell to their death in the apple cellar in the barn. Such is the misuse and mischievous use of The Great Game in the community upon strangers in terms of influencing their dreams and interfering in their concentration or thinking. The Great Game suggests that thoughts can be inserted into people’s minds like slide projector photographs – let’s call them Inserts.  The person is then left to wonder if it is their own thoughts that they were thinking in the first place. It can possibly drive them mad or warp a person’s personality to the point where they can almost give up on life or give them obsessions they wouldn’t necessarily foster. The same goes with the internet and algorithms on your computer or television to apply the game to everyday reality. Push a button and you’re addicted. That is the bad side of the push button age.

Twins of Evil (1971)
More twins: Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror (1948)
Bette Davis in Dead Ringer (1964)

“It’s a special thing for special people,” Ada tells Niles and also tells him not to play the game too much as it concerns her and she thinks that he should play with other children and become more rooted in reality.

The beautiful thing about The Other is that it shows there to be a psychic realm, that it can be abused, that children can live in a world of make believe and mental illness and yet thrive in that still egg-like state… We learn that for some it is a fine line between fantasy and reality and living your life almost totally in your mind can be dangerous and even catastrophic. Not necessarily to a point of catatonia but perhaps prolonged rumination or a break from reality and psychosis while just walking down the street.

I was a child brought up on his own and I can’t remember if before the age of six I had any imaginary friends. It was one of living in nature as there was an abandoned almond orchard over the back fence where I lived and I would pick at and eat from the almond shells piled upon each other beneath the trees and I would take home duck eggs to my mother. I had few kids to play with until I went to school but I would wander and play and it was those formative years that can help develop a child’s genius, no matter what their IQ’s are. It certainly planted an imagination into my mind but I would not be aware of the fact it had reached the point of illness until later on when I learned I wasn’t talented enough to put that imagination to work. I was also unaware of the psychic realm until many years later.

Niles wonders what Holland will do next
Red House (1947) poster
Latin The Other (1972) poster

“Why do people have to die?,” Niles asks Ada when they are in the local church. She tells him she dreams of an angel taking her to heaven and there is a picture of it in the stained-glass window. She calls it the Angel of the Brighter Day and Niles likes the idea of it but it is only an idea and not a true belief as his life is wrapped up in his brother and relatives and the things he has seen. He has also blocked his memory of things such as his cousin’s death after he jumps on a haystack and lands on a pitchfork. Was it Holland that put it there?

Uta Hagen later called The Other: “A junky little horror tale” despite having fallen in love with the book, while Tyron disliked the way Mulligan directed his script which left out certain sections of the book. It was made on a budget of $3.5 million and was shot in a place called Murphys, California instead of the East Coast and the location used was the same house used in the movie Red House (1947) which was a horror movie which like The Other really wasn’t a horror movie at all. The barn was built especially for the movie. Check out Adam Zanzie’s making of documentary.

Others who worked on the movie include John Ritter (1948-2003 aortic dissection) and actor Barry Sullivan’s (1912-94 respiratory failure) daughter Jenny Sullivan (1946-) along with Victor French (1934-89 lung cancer) as the immigrant gardener whose alcoholism would see him victimised in the climax.

Bruno Hauptmann in the electric chair giving a Shining Jack Nicholson look
The twins from The Shining (1980)

Back to the movie, and it is Holland that likes horror stories while Niles cheers his mother once more in the garden with hope and the line: “Everything’s going to be all right now.” And yet there is still some foreboding about the ring… Who did the ring, a symbol of devotion between two parties, originally belong to? Was it Nile’s mother’s ring? And is his mother’s melancholy, and possible madness, hereditary? In Nile’s and Holland’s room there is a drawing of Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann (1899-1936 death by electric chair) in childish strokes. We wonder who really drew it and if it was a case of hero worship.

The boys are together again as Niles imagines the Angel from the church swooping down like the crow and taking him to heaven.

“What if it takes you to hell?,” says Holland as he later goes and scares the neighbour with the preserves to death with a rat. But Niles… is he bad? Or does he block his misdeeds and try to erase them with an outwardly good personality? A case of successful schizophrenia.

The boys are good actors and Mulligan keeps it subjective by never using a shot which has both boys in the same frame. It is always from Niles’s point of view. Once more, it is the difference between the self and the other and at the same time there is that closeness between the two asexual boy selves which cannot become one physically but only in the mind and symbolically with a ring… Or perhaps by forever entering and remaining in another’s psyche forever in memories which can also haunt in the form of guilt and voices and unwanted memories that just won’t go away.

The twins superimposed
Another Latin poster

It is then that Mother finds the ring in Niles’s room which has been stolen from their father’s body after he fell into the apple cellar. She weeps at the well in the garden.

“What are you doing with the ring?,” Mother asks him in desperation before she too loses her balance at the top of the stairs thanks to Niles. The temper within Niles isn’t one of complete rage and yet it is enough for ‘accidents’ to happen. His is a child’s or even an adult’s rage of buried guilt which has come back to haunt them once the surface has been scratched. Niles has buried the guilt and yet it remains ready to break out later when he is an adolescent or and adult of the kind like kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann. Perhaps he is already worse than Hauptmann… and yet it is not his fault. It is as though he was once an innocent who has been warped by his brother, causing the fracture into two selves within his mind – one his brother and the other his good self. And yet Niles IS still an innocent.

This becomes obvious when Ada asks Niles in the church, if it was himself, or Holland, who visited the dead neighbour and he tells her it was Holland. She then takes him by the arm and shows him Holland’s grave in the churchyard.

“Play the game,” she says as Niles is forced to look deep underground into the coffin where Holland’s body lies mouldering…

Niles in church with his grandmother
Playing the Great Game at Holland’s grave

Cinematographer Robert Surtees

The Other has no gore or special effects, so people looking for that will be disappointed. It is not a hardcore horror movie. The cinematography is by Robert Surtees (1906-85) who worked on several of Mulligan’s movies while the imagery is matched with music by well-known composer Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004 colon cancer).

It turns out that Holland fell down the well while he was torturing a cat and after Niles stares at the grave-stone he turns feverish. His mother admits she fostered his game-playing imagination with Holland despite his death because she thought the fantasies would only be a phase he was going through. She didn’t want to realise that her son was really mentally ill. And the possibility her other son Holland pushed his father down the stairs… The ring… All over a ring…

“Now the time has come for the games to stop,” grandmother tells Niles: “Everything has gone too far, it must stop now!”

Niles kind of realises that something’s wrong and tells his grandmother not to send him away to a home so they can always be together… But Holland continues to haunt Niles with whispers in the dark and then shows him via The Great Game that Niles then cut Holland’s dead finger off to get the ring. Holland urges him to take it and we are slowly becoming aware just how demented Niles is as he talks to Holland and there is only an empty armchair.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith
The Omen (1976) poster had an evil child and Jerry Goldsmith did the score

People would allow someone a moment of fantasy beside a grave-stone when they talk to their dead sibling but to talk to one at length and imagining they are there but they are not, shows a total break from reality. I hope it doesn’t happen to you! The Great Game doesn’t extend to beyond the grave, whether it is real or not. It is this element which makes the whole movie kind of creepy and worth a second viewing. Tryon and Mulligan have managed to unfold events very well.

The final act of the movie is about the missing baby which has been born in the house and is another of Holland’s supposed obsessions … Holland’s favourite fairy tale was The Changeling which was about elves surreptitiously swapping babies for an imbecilic elf and feeding the original baby to the devil… The baby is then found dead in a wine barrel and Victor French’s immigrant is said to be responsible like the Lindbergh kidnapping …  it is then that Ada sees how irretrievably sick that Niles is, as he blames it all on Holland. She traps Niles in the apple cellar and throws gallons of fuel and a lantern before throwing herself on top of it for good measure. Niles survives in a twist since Holland has cut the padlock to an exit.

The Other (1972) trailer
Mulligan directs his final film The Man in the Moon (1991)
Marty and Chris Udvarnoky in later years
The Other is another iconic movie

The most tragic element of the movie more than horrific is the final shot which shows Niles looking down behind a curtain from an upper storey window in the house. We know that he has been betrayed by the women who most loved him and he most loved as they have either deserted him and/or turned against him. At least, he possibly has The Great Game and Holland to continue haunting him … and then there’s that familiar whistle which had begun and ends the movie … Holland!

The ending of the book is similar although it is a grown Niles telling the story from the mental asylum: “So I keep to myself…. Mostly I like to watch the Shadow Hills buses end their route at the corner and turn around. Oh yes, they took the street cars off years ago but other than that nothing much has changed. It’s still the end of the line.”

Staring into space, it’s as though Niles is forever consumed by the past as it haunts him in terms of all the events which have happened, no matter how inconsequential to him. There is no real guilt perhaps because he is insane or still a child without a conscience but the ghosts are still there… It would always be Holland who did the murders. The past, no matter how disturbing, is nothing but a thought lingering and often returning forever, and if it is not taunting you while it remains then it is beckoning for another thought to return as it wants to stay in that state of mind and go back to that place in childhood which was once sacred and, in this case, profane.

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