AMAD-Horror Edition: The Changeling (1980)

13 Oct

changeling

cinemagrade bGeorge C. Scott is not the most ideal mark if you are a troubled spectre looking to haunt someone. He isn’t going to scare very easily, and all of your dripping faucets, percussive banging, and Enya whispering are likely going to just tick him off; believe me, you don’t want George ticked off. But if you can get beyond the fact he’s probably going to get under your skin long before you get under his, he’s a great ally.

changeleingScottOnce George get’s wind of your decades old misery and mysterious death in need of solving, he’ll be all over it like a hobo on a hotdog. If there’s a way for your tormented soul to get eternal rest, General Patton won’t take any of his own until you are sitting back strumming a phantasmal harp. He’s just that kind of guy. Yes sir, George will do right by ya, as long as you can tolerate the occasional blustering yell of “YOU SON OF A  @#&*!! WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT FROM ME?? I’VE DONE EVERYTHING I CAN DO!!”

 

 

The Changeling was one of my favorite scary movies as a kid, and when I took the opportunity to view it again for this column, I found it still holds up. Not to be confused with the recent Clint Eastwood/Angelina Jolie vehicle, Medak’s film is a creepy, evocative ghost story featuring a classic turn by the always great George C. Scott. The casting of Scott and the use of one of the creepiest houses I have ever seen in my life go a long way to making The Changeling the minor classic that is. While the rest of 1980 was busy revving up the slasher genre, Medak and company created a film that owes more to the spooky house flicks of yesteryear; pics like The Innocents, The Uninvited and The Haunting. It takes its time in bringing its ghost story to the light, but with excellent acting from Scott, Trish Van Devere and the wonderful Melvyn Douglas, The Changeling is never anything less than engrossing.

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The movie opens with a winter day and a family on vacation. The car has broken down, and John Russell is using a pay-phone to call road services. While he does this, he watches a careening car drive a truck off the road and into his screaming wife and daughter. In one instant, Russell’s world is transformed, and the film freezes on a scene of Scott staring out in horror from the phone booth.

The title card comes up over this scene, emphasizing the impact of this one moment on the man, and, in fact, the rest of the movie. Months after this event, Russell, a classical composer, moves out to Seattle to take a teaching job and find a solitary place where he can work on his music. Trish Van Devere (Scott’s real-life wife at the time) plays Claire Norman, a rep from the Historical Society who helps Russell find a home to suit his needs.

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 The house in question is a hulking gothic structure. It’s amazing to look at. The interiors of the home have long, imposing staircases and vaulted ceilings but the place hasn’t been production-designed to the point of overkill. The rooms are sparse and minimal in the decor. There is an attic filled with relics from the early 1900s, including a child’s wheelchair. Some of the film’s creepiest moments involve this wheelchair. When Russell moves in, he finds he has an unwanted roommate; a strange presence is opening doors, moving objects and creating loud, rhythmic smashing sounds that wake John in the night.

 To his credit, John takes this all in his stride. Within a day or so, he understands this is a ghost, has bashed his way through the attic door with the use of a wrench, and  scheduled a séance in his home to learn the ghost’s identity. Scott plays the character as if he is emotionally far away from the haunting events of the story. He handles it all with a straight-forward, business-like attitude that occasionally borders on irritation. When the ghost bounces a ball into Russell’s sight and he picks it up, you half expect him to take a bite out of it just to spite his invisible tenant. The strength of Scott’s performance is in all of the things he doesn’t say, but manages to convey through the way the character behaves. Russell’s heart is still wrapped up in that moment where he lost his family; solving this current mystery is an opportunity for emotional recovery and though he never verbally acknowledges it, clearly John understands this.

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How then, does the film manage to convey any sense of jeopardy or fear when the main character is so stoic and self-posessed? For starters, we have Trish Van Devere. After the initial haunting, Russell recruits Claire to help him solve the mystery. As John hides out in his own personal pain, Claire responds to the terror and sadness of the tragedy the ghost is revealing to them. Its a story involving hidden children, tragic drowning, bodies under the floorboard in a child’s room, and a mysterious tie to one Senator Carmichael (played by Melvyn Douglas, whose impressive and long career includes the spook film, The Old Dark House). Douglas, as the old senator, has a brilliant scene towards the end of the film where Scott confronts him. He cements the poignancy of the ghost’s backstory.

The Changeling is a film that some might find a little too stately and deliberate. Its more interested in building its mystery to a logical conclusion than about big set-pieces or cheap fright moments. However, if you are in search of an atmospheric and well-plotted ghost story then this is a good choice. After Poltergeist hit the scene in 1982, bombast and big visuals were the standard practice for supernatural stories. The Changeling isn’t concerned with any of this. It has everything it needs. It has George C. Scott. And that’s more than enough.

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6 Responses to “AMAD-Horror Edition: The Changeling (1980)”

  1. The Great Fatsby October 13, 2009 at 6:52 pm #

    In the version I saw, he did bite that red ball. It might be the version I made up in my head though, because that would have been the most perfect scene ever filmed if it had actually happened.

  2. xiphos0311 October 13, 2009 at 6:58 pm #

    I also enjoyed this movie as a kid its a very diffrent sort of ghost story and I agree it holds up well.

  3. M.Blitz October 14, 2009 at 1:11 pm #

    This was one of the first scary movies I remember seeing as a little kid, back to back with The Dead Zone. I need to see this one again.

  4. Xiphos October 14, 2009 at 1:21 pm #

    Wait Blitz, aren’t you still a kid? Nyuck Nyuck Nyuck.

  5. goregirl October 15, 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    I seen this in the theatre when I was a kid. When that wet ball goes bouncing down those stairs it completely chilled my shit! Haven’t seen this one in a few years. I should definitely revisit!

  6. Continentalop October 21, 2009 at 9:52 pm #

    A “B”? I disagree – this is an “A”. My all time favorite haunted house movie.

    Of course, I do accept differing opinions.

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