Robert Mulligan is a strange choice to direct a horror movie. He was more well-known for dramas like Summer of ’42; Same Time, Next Year and To Kill A Mockinbird. This adaption of the Tom Tryon book was also scripted by the author, who was once an actor before suffering the abuse of Otto Preminger.
This is a movie that I’ve been wanting to see since reading about it in Paperbacks From Hell (writer Grady Hendrix — who created that book with Will Errickson — also wrote this great article all about Tryon), as Tryon is really the forgotten horror writer of the 1970’s.
In the summer of 1935, identical twins Holland and Niles Perry live on their family farm, but all is not well. Their father died in an accident in the apple cellar last year and their mother remains so sad that she rarely leaves her room. While the rest of the family goes about their daily lives, Niles grows closer to Ada (Uta Hagen, who may have only appeared in five films, but was an incredibly influential acting teacher and Broadway star), his Russian grandmother, who has introduced him to the great game, the Perry family’s secret gift of being able to project their mind into other beings.
The twins are pretty mischeivous, as they still play in the apple cellar where their father died. One day, they’re caught there by their cousin Rusell, who also sees that Niles is wearing the ring that was to be buried with his rather. Holland, the older of the two twins, says that the ring passes on to the oldest son, who can do whatever he wants with it. He wants his brother to have it.
Their father’s brother George locks up the cellar, but Holland knows how to sneak in. And to get revenge for Russell’s snitching, he hides a pitchfork inside a haystack. The young boy jumps into it and is killed to the horror of Niles, who must now keep his brother’s secret. This behavior only gets worse when Holland causes a neighbor (Portia Nelson, one of Tryon’s lifelong friends) to have a heart attack after he menaces her with a rat.
The twins’ mother finally learns what is happening and finds the ring inside a tobacco tin, along with a human finger. She demands that Niles tell her how he got it. He says that Holland gave it to him and the evil brother charhes his mother, knocking her down the stairs, rendering her paralyzed.
After the neighbor’s body is found, Ada finds Holland’s harmonica and asks Niles what happened. He lets her know that his brother has been evil all summer. Here’s where the twist comes in — Holland has been dead since he fell down a well on their birthday last March. Right before he died, Niles used the great game to talk to his dead brother, who commanded him to open his coffin, cut off his finger and take the ring.
The old woman now realizes that Niles has kept his brother alive in his mind and has been responsible for everything bad that has happened. Yet she is unable to turn on him and keeps his secret, as long as he never plays the game again.
The only problem is that Niles can’t be stopped. When his sister gives birth to a baby girl (look for a young John Ritter as their father) the Holland side of his personality steals the baby as he is fascinated by the Lindbergh kidnapping. The child is discovered drowned and a mentally challenged farmhand is arrested for the murder. But Ada knows better. She demands that Niles — alone in the apple cellar — screaming for Holland to tell him where the baby — who he loved — went. Ada pours kerosene into the cellar to kill the boy and throws herself into the fire.
Months later, we learn that Niles escaped, as Holland had cut the padlock to the door. With his beloved grandmother dead and his mother basically a vegetable, no one will ever know his secret. Niles is called down to lunch and life goes on.
This is how the theatrical cut ends, but the CBS 1970’s TV version, perhaps wanting the child to pay for his crimes, ends with Niles saying, “Holland, the game’s over. We can’t play the game anymore. But when the sheriff comes, I’ll ask him if we can play it in our new home.” The voiceover is dubbed by a different actor. However, every broadcast and release of the film cut out this voiceover in favor of the original theatrical ending.
Tryon hated this adaption, blaming everyone, incuding himself. “Oh, no. That broke my heart. Jesus. That was very sad,” he said of the finished film. “That picture was ruined in the cutting and the casting…God knows, it was badly cut and faultily directed. Perhaps the whole thing was the rotten screenplay, I don’t know.”
Despite a mild performance at the box office, the film ran on TV throughout the 1970’s. Roger Ebert was a major fan, saying that the film “has been criticized in some quarters because Mulligan made it too beautiful, they say, and too nostalgic. Not at all. His colors are rich and deep and dark, chocolatey browns and bloody reds; they aren’t beautiful but perverse and menacing. And the farm isn’t seen with a warm nostalgia, but with a remembrance that it is haunted.”
I looked for this film for nearly a year until Shudder played it last month, but it’s already gone from the service, back into the mists from whence it came.