‘Children of the Damned’ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie
The last full length review written for Montage Film, published during November 2008.
The Other (1972) is a psychological horror adapted from a novel of the same name by its author Tom Tryon, and directed by Robert Mulligan, better known for his sterling work on To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The film follows the story of a set of boy twins in 1930s Connecticut, whose increasingly unsettling relationship and supernatural games come under suspicion, as accidents, death and destruction begins to unfold around them. Akin to many other classic horror films of the time, such as The Omen (Donner, 1976) and The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973) it makes much of the relationship between children and the supernatural and the uncanny. That the story has at its centre a set of identical twins, themselves subject to a great deal of folk belief and superstition, only serves to emphasise the thematic link, and it is these aspects of the film that will form the basis of this examination.
The world inhabited by children has undoubtedly some striking differences to that occupied by adults, which are at once over emphasised and ignored by most adults. The way in which children can connect to the past and traditions, almost to an older version of humanity and are not entirely bound by the conventions of society causes disquiet and unnerves their elders. The particular cruelty of children, as yet untamed by the conventions of society, upsets those who wish to think of childhood as something pure and innocent. Children’s songs and games, seem to flow between generations without any apparent teaching, following patterns that can be traced back through centuries of human history. Childish society is both far more complex and far simpler than the adult counterpart; yet utterly alien to those no longer part of it. Feeding into the adult fear and perhaps resentment, that they can reach something ancient and powerful that the rest of society has lost or left behind. If children represent to the modern adult world, something uncanny and somehow linked to an older time, even to the collective unconscious, then twins multiply this concept.
Twins have long been associated with the supernatural and superstition, with many primitive cultures regarding the birth of twins as a portent whether for good or evil. Whether the portent was positive or negative, twins were regularly associated with the supernatural, even within cultures which treasured twins they were considered to have strange gifts, from telling the sex of an unborn child to being able to stop a pot boiling through their will alone. As late as the last century, in parts of rural China one twin would always be sacrificed under the belief that evil spirits used this method to gain a foothold on the world. Even in the USA in the thirties and forties, people still believed that twins were less mentally bright than other people, and that one twin of every set was likely to be sterile, which have since been disproved by scientific testing – the latter being true only in cows. Identical twins in particular continue to be associated with the uncanny. Indeed some researchers specialising in the study of twins believe that if there is ever likely that scientific proof will be found for telepathy then the unspoken communications of twins with their identical brain wave patterns are the most likely to provide a clear answer either way. Today the term ‘evil twin’ is still part of popular culture whether as an affectionate term between friends for one who thinks just like the other and encourages them in acts of rebellion, or, more often in fiction, in a more sinister manner as someone who looks exactly like you, who will steal and/or destroy everything that is precious to their double. Playing as it does on issues of identity especially on Western notions of the essential quality of individuality, the horror of someone else wearing your face.
To begin with the film follows the traditional trajectory of good twin/bad twin, with dominant twin Holland (Martin Udvarnoky) the troublemaker, while gentler Niles (Chris Udvarnoky) gets pulled unwillingly into his brother’s schemes. As the film progresses and Holland’s pranks become increasingly nasty and dangerous, curiosity and suspicion begin to fall on the twin’s increasingly unhealthy relationship until a terrible truth is revealed to us. Holland has been dead since falling down a well on their birthday in March several months previously.
The Niles/Holland collective is an almost archetypal example of the concept of ‘the other’. Primarily through the way in which the defining between each of their individual selves becomes eroded, and how Niles psychological collapse stems from the loss of his twin, the ‘other’ in opposition to which his whole personality and sense of self had previously been constructed. The notion that as identical twins, originally having been one single egg, are in fact two halves of a complete single being, is although a fantastical notional a useful one intrinsic to the plot of the film. Thematically it is being posited that if the self requires ‘the Other’ in order to define itself, then this is amplified in the case of twins. Prior to Holland’s death Niles’ whole world had revolved around him, in the aftermath his world revolves around Holland’s absence. Unable to cope with a world without his twin, or conceive of himself without his opposite, Niles creates the illusion of his brother. Possibly using the strange supernatural game Ada (Uta Hagan) taught them to project his memory of his brother onto the world. Niles seems intent on embodying Hegel’s notion that ‘each consciousness pursues the death of the other’, seeking the destruction of all those that are not like them. By the end of the film, Niles had completely lost the ability to distinguish between himself and ‘the other’ that is his dead brother. They have melded into one being, while at the same time his own self has broken into two separate entities or personalities to allow him to cope with and justify his own actions.
Additionally the concept of the other is often associated with Orientalism in regard to how Western societies traditionally subjected societies they wished to subsume and control. The boy’s grandmother Ada plays a different kind of other to the twins. As a Russian immigrant she is cast as very much part of another older world. The connection between her religious beliefs and ‘the Great Game’ she teaches Niles seem to represent the subsuming of older pagan religions by Christianity, particularly when she talks about the angel in their church’s stained glass window coming to embody her childhood beliefs. The Russian word she calls the Angel, may be an accurate translation, but to the uninitiated it sounds more like the name of some ancient god. It is this connection to the Old World that leaves her open to understanding how deep into darkness Niles has fallen, to act, though ultimately in vain, to put an end to it. While everyone else, part of the modern ‘New World’ cannot comprehend the strange truth of the situation.
Perhaps inevitably due to the film’s period setting, there is a certain amount of religious significance, which ties neatly into the myths and superstitions regarding twins. The notion of innocence as a vehicle for evil is one, which would be particularly fascinating to filmmakers of this period. As Niles becomes increasingly obsessed with the notion of good and evil, and his own role as ‘good’ twin to Holland’s ‘bad’ twin his behaviour and reasoning becomes increasingly extreme and hysterical. He fixates on the differences between the two of them, even as he increasingly takes on his brother’s personality traits. Niles becomes obsessed with the story his grandmother tells him, in what later reveals to be an attempt by her to help him understand and accept his brother’s death, of the ‘Angel of the Brighter Day’ who will come for him when it his time to die. Towards the end as Ada appears making her preparations to burn them both to death, he seems almost eager for death, scared but longing for her arrival, and she in turn seems intent on playing that role. Whether he seeks an end to join his brother or to be free of him is unclear, perhaps because he himself remains uncertain of which he truly seeks. Whether he is more haunted or possessed by his brother is unclear but either way, in his lonely survival status at the end, he seems more like the ghost in a painting or photograph that everyone swears wasn’t there when it was taken.
At the start of the film sound is used to mark clear distinctions between the twins, with Holland moving sneakily and silently, while Niles stumbles along clumsily in his wake accompanied by the constant rattle of his precious tin. Sound is consistently used to build the ‘reality’ that Niles inhabits as an increasingly separate place from that experienced by everyone else around him. Emphasising throughout the contradiction between surface appearances and inner realities. Even the film’s score gets in on the act, taking its cues from the theme songs of far more wholesome family dramas. The music conjuring up the image of those far too sunny and wholesome period American dramas, where the dark under currents of reality and history remain unspoken, so much more beloved by the parents than the children. Appropriately enough the composer Jerry Goldsmith would go on to compose the music for the bucolic drama The Waltons part of the genre whose music the score reflects. That archetypal music is taken and twisted in a way that draws attention to and emphasises the undertones of faint creepiness in the type of drama it apes, using it for its own ends. That combination of stylised faux innocence and dark undercurrents melding perfectly with the film’s thematics.