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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Canadian Film Review: The Changeling (1980)

* * *

Director: Peter Medak
Starring: George C. Scott, Melvyn Douglas

Word of advice: if you're living in a house where all the fawcetts start running on their own, the piano can play itself, and a creepy old lady tells you that the house "doesn't want people," just leave. Just pack a bag and go. Don't become determined to get to the bottom of it and definitely do not break open the secret locked room. No good will come of it.

The Changeling starts as high melodrama (to wit: the hero stands on one side of a highway using the telephone booth, watching his wife and daughter play in the snow on the other side; cut to a shot of a semi barrelling down the road in one direction; cut to a car coming from the other direction starting to skid; cut to the hero, realizing what's about to happen but getting stuck in the phone booth; the wife and daughter clutch each other and scream; the semi sounds its horn... you get the idea) but quickly settles into a first rate ghost story. In it, George C. Scott plays John Russell, a composer who packs up and moves to Seattle following the death of his wife and daughter, and rents a cavernous mansion through the historical preservation society. Why does one man need all this room? Because big houses are scarier than little ones.

Strange things begin happening and when he starts asking questions, he gets the feeling that something is being covered up. He finds a hidden pad-locked door and breaks it open, giving him access to the attic which it appears was once a bedroom. There's a music box in there and when he opens it he finds that it plays the exact same melody that he himself just composed the other day. He brings in experts in the field to conduct a seance and listening to the recording of the event afterwards, hears the ghostly voice answering the medium's questions. Putting all the pieces together he discovers a horrific crime that leads back to the powerful Senator Joe Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), whose family once owned the house. Carmichael thinks he's being blackmailed, leading Russell to wonder just how much the Senator knows and just how far he's willing to go to cover it up.

The Changeling is cleverly and tightly constructed (though it must be said that the title kind of gives away a major plot twist) film that succeeds at creating a really creepy atmosphere and some genuine scares. The sight of a woman being chased through a house by an empty, old timey wheelchair should probably seem cheesy, but the film is so well made that it's actually pretty terrifying. This isn't a blood and guts kind of horror movie (though there's a little blood) or even one where something is always jumping out from behind corners. Director Peter Medak creates such an intensenly ominous mood that you're on edge even when nothing is happening.

If the film has a flaw it's in the way that Russell relates to the events happening around him. As played by Scott, he's a very commanding character and as such, whether he's being confronted by the ghostly happenings in the house or by the flesh and blood human beings who want to keep him quiet, he never acts as if he believes he's in any danger. This element of the character, while perfectly believable from the guy who played George Patton, nevertheless has the effect of undercutting the overall mood of the film. Part of the reason why scary movies are scary is because we're put in a position to relate to the protagonist and when they're scared, we're scared. If the protagonist isn't scared and acts like there's nothing to be afraid of, it works to remove us from the experience of what's happening on screen and reminds us that it's all just make believe. It's not that Scott's performance isn't good, because it is, it's just that it kind of works against everything else the film is trying to do.


Franco Macabro said...

This movie gets you pretty early on with that awesome car crash sequence! It reminded me of that other movie Audrey Rose, which also begins with a spectacular car crash sequence.

This is one of my favorite ghost films, its right up there with films like Ghost Story, which to me is one of the most underrated ghost movies ever.

For me The Changeling was highly influential on films like The Ring and The Devils Backbone.

Norma Desmond said...

I think it probably also influenced The Sixth Sense, particularly that scene where he's listening to the recording.