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The Other Thriller

The Other now at the Charles Cinema

By Esther Dyson

A FEW WEEKS AGO Newsweek's letters section carried a complaint from a reader claiming that the reviewer's disclosure of the plot of Frenzy had completely spoiled the picture. However, a good movie can't be destroyed by the revelation of its plot. If this were so it would be impossible to see the film again with the same satisfaction, whereas good movies--both Frenzy and The Other--improve on a second viewing.

Nevertheless, I don't intend to defy the ads and reveal the secret of The Other, for there's a certain irrevocable moment when its whole world gives a sudden shudder and turns over that's worth experiencing if you can; it's just that the film doesn't depend on it. All at once those little doubts you had at the beginning--and forgot as you were led up the farmyard path--take their rightful place as legitimate uneasinesses that Robert Mulligan's skillful direction made you ignore. Eschewing the period songs, posters, and movies he used in Summer of '42, he has recreated intact a childhood world that is separate from the wider-ranging life of surrounding adults. There is no hint of city life: the biggest crowds (barring a short scene at a country fair) are the score or so of people who attend the several funerals that come up before the film is done. Life is running free on the farm, drinking lemonade with the neighbor lady, performing magic tricks for the grown-ups, listening to the bizarre tales of an aged Russian grandmother. The Depression has no meaning when you're young and your family still owns its land.

The Other begins with a shimmery shot of one of the twin protagonists (played by Chris and Martin Udvarnoky) playing alone in the woods, the sun filtering down through the trees in that peculiarly captivating way that no cameraman can resist. The focus is misty and offputting: who of the audience who came for a thriller wants two indistinguishable twins romping in the woods?

But Mulligan has taken great care with his ten-year-old actors and they have two quite separate identities. With a little help from the other characters, who frequently call them by name--either Niles or Holland--the "bad" twin and the "good" twin are easily distinguished. The Udvarnokys play the twins with amazing unselfconsciousness. They consider themselves people, not cute objects-to-be-admired (as actors or as children). Their matter-of-fact acceptance of the increasingly frightening world around them contrasts with the histrionics of their grandmother (Uta Hagen). Many critics have complained of her overacting, but I liked both the role (which must be credited to novel-and-scriptwriter Tom Tryon) and her portrayal of it. She represents the ancient wisdoms, the old-fashioned mysticism, the Russian excitability that has been assimilated into her descendants' world of jeeps and cotton candy. It is the seemingly normal world of the twins that provides the material for this inquiry into evil.

AS HITCHCOCK has many times observed and demonstrated, murder is always more frightening when it occurs on a sunny afternoon while life is proceeding apace around you. The twins continue to play in the barn and plan their magic show while around them person after person dies in horrible circumstances due to the actions of the "bad" twin. Their insufferable cousin, jumping in the hayloft, lands on a carefully placed pitchfork. Their invalid mother is pushed down the stairs in the middle of the night when no one but them is there is to see. By day they are such charming creatures, uninterested by anything except their childish games, that an external spirit of evil seems to be lurking in the air. And, in fact, the grandmother has taught Niles a trick she calls "the game," whereby he projects himself into another being or object and shares its experience.

This leads to Mulligan's single major lapse of judgment, a dazzling but obtrusive set piece in which Niles imagines himself into the mind of a crow swooping over the farm. The camera swoops with the crow, showing us trees and roofs in a magnificent track through the air--and momentarily suspending the story.

This otherworldly kind of evil--the action cuts straight from the crow sequence to the pitchfork death--is what we get hints of here and there, but ultimately the evil is resolved in terms of psychology, without recourse to metaphysics. The feel of the film is almost excessively human: Mulligan's intense personal involvement with his characters keeps The Other from being anything more than a momentarily mind-boggling thriller, albeit one of the best in recent years. His attempts to transcent the actual events fail; the world he creates is too immediate.

But this is, in The Other, a virtue. There is no need for broader resonance in a film that does not aspire to it. The story proceeds with unpeccable pacing: the corpses mount up but the movement never ralters. There is no lingering over the deaths, no portentous nudges when those little inconsistencies, which will mean so much on a second viewing, occur. The deliciousness of this kind of of horror is its closeness to reality.

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