The Other (Mulligan, 1972)

Let’s talk about sound, shall we?  I’ll likely continue this conversation in an upcoming post on the gorgeously aural Hukkle.  The Other fits the 1970s demon-child phenomenon.  It was directed by Robert Mulligan, most famous for To Kill A Mockingbird.

The Other is a horror film in the sense that the events that take place are horrifying.  It’s dated, and falls victim to predictability in the first three minutes.  There are problems with the script, particularly with a lead character’s actions at the end of the film which are questionable at best, laughable at worst, and certainly not deserved by any stretch of character development and arc.

Two twin boys – Holland (Martin Udvarnoky) and Niles (Chris Udvarnoky) – live in a small pastoral community with their bed-ridden mother and kindly caretaker Ada (Uta Hagen).  In true demon-seed fashion, a series of catastrophic events befall the community, leading Niles to take a closer look at his mischievous brother.

A precursor to the more famous 1976 film, The Omen, The Other follows in the footsteps of 1956’s The Bad Seed by turning tropes of innocence on their head.

The best part about The Other is the sound.  Mulligan uses simple diegetic sounds – whistling winds, crickets, footsteps in grass – very effectively, and his soundscape is idyllic for the first third of the film, providing a nice contrast to the violence to come.

There’s also plenty of well-placed silences.  Indeed, The Other is a very quiet film.  There’s little of the sometimes absurd hubbub that dominates The Omen, and Mulligan is smart to let things simmer in our ears before pulling the string on something loud and ear-splitting.

There’s one moment in particular that I want to talk about.  Holland and Niles are getting set to go to a carnival.  We begin in the scene prior.  The two boys are in a barn at their family’s house, preparing for a magic show that they plan to put on for their mother and Ada later in the month.  As they talk about their plans we get a strange sound cutting in – it’s the sound of screams.  There’s no source for it, and initially, we’re left to think that this is either an off-screen sound that they are not reacting to, or perhaps an internal sound, predicting some calamitous event.

After a few seconds, there’s a cut to a ride at the carnival.  The screams continue from the barn into the carnival.  It’s called a sound bridge, where the same sound or sounds continue over a cut, and from scene-to-scene or location-to-location.

With the cut, and the reveal of the new location, the meaning of the screams suddenly changes.  In our minds they become scenes of glee rather than of doom.  It’s a nice little trick where a sound must be defined by its visual accompaniment.  When we first hear the screams, because of the context (Holland and Niles discussing something surface-level innocent, subtextually-dangerous), and because they have no immediate source, the screams are foreboding and menacing.  After the cut, because we can now put faces and a source to the scream they are happy and laughing.

It’s important to note that the quality of the screams don’t change.  That is, their pitch and tone remain the same across the cut.  It’s only our perception that changes.

The next question is: does the sound, after the cut and the carnival is revealed, retain two meanings, or does it only have one (the final/carnival/joyful) meaning?  The fact that it’s an L-Cut (sound preceding image) tells me that Mulligan intentionally wants us to read into the screams in two ways.  The screams themselves may now be identifiable as happy, but the feeling of danger lingers.  It’s an expert way to hide a clue: “Here are screams of children having fun.  Because of what you initially thought about the screams, I’m telling you that those very screams will likely revert to fulfilling your initial reaction later in the film.”

Here are two posters for The Other:

That first poster on the left includes some really nicely designed small hints.  In particular look at the line making up the left part of the image.  What is it?  I also like the tagline “Please don’t reveal the secret of The Other.”  This is curious because the secret is revealed to us halfway through the film, and if you don’t pick up on it before that then you need to watch more movies.  It’s kind of like Hitchcock trying to keep Psycho quiet in 1960.  Nonetheless, it’s a good tagline as it promises a) a secret, b) a secret that you’ll want to tell others (ie it’s good), c) a secret that the film hinges on (ie a plot twist), and d) the idea that others will want to see this film.

The second poster includes a few more clues, including the outlining image, which looks like something from Preminger’s Saul Bass-designed Anatomy of a Murder poster:

There’s a nice use of background in that second The Other poster – the textures behind the faces.  There’s also some nice lighting/shadow, giving us your “Good Son” narrative via cinematography.

I don’t know enough about it, but there must be some tradition of containing the characters within the outline of a plot-pivotal object (here, the hand).  It points to a plot-heavy film (three plot points on one poster: falling body, hand, pitchfork), and makes the characters themselves, while certainly important, almost secondary.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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