Monday, November 22, 2010

Reader Recommendation: The Changeling

"Ultimately though, I have to recommend Peter Medak's 1980 film The Changeling. No one will appreciate this film more than a hardcore horror fan. It's the diamond in the rough for which everyone searches. There are better made films on your list, but this is the type that no one outside of genre fans would champion. It's a slow burn mystery/horror film with virtually no gore or jump scares that relies almost exclusively on its spooky atmosphere and great acting. This is a ghost story that puts modern day J-horror to shame. What Medak does with a couple of ordinary props, is far creepier than any amount of CGI nonsense. Also, it features one of the best casts ever assembled for a movie of this sort. There's lots of future enjoyment to be had on your list, but this one is special and I highly recommend smushing it to the top of your queue."--Shiftless

"We have a serious injustice to address.

First, contest or not, you need to find 
the nearest copy of The Changeling. I don't care if you have to stay up all night or miss work tomorrow. In fact, if you can't get a copy - and if netflix doesn't offer it - let me know. I will burn you one (all kidding aside, I really will if you can't get it). It is my favourite horror movie. It has that classic late 70s feel to it (you know...shot like a drama, starring a real leading man). It's all about personal tragedy - for both the living and the dead. It uses suspense instead of big scares. And George C. Scott doesn't deliver one line or one look half-assed. It's one of those movies that most 16 yr olds today probably couldn't sit through because it's boring, since the movie actually develops a full fleshed plot, and the conflict is just as much about the main character's life as it is about his experience with the paranormal." --My Ghoul Friday

How could I resist?
Quick Plot: To further prove my point that upstate New York is a vicious land fraught with evil, famed composer John Russell (George C. Scott) experiences the greatest of all tragedies when his wife and young daughter are struck by a truck on the side of a snowy road. Still dealing with his enormous grief, John packs up and moves cross country into a historical house in Seattle where he plans to take things day by day while teaching and working on his next symphony.

It doesn’t take long for the house to start its own job, namely, creeping John out by making eerie noises and eventually, revealing a hidden attic room with insanely high dust levels and a few mysterious artifacts dating 70 years earlier. Most unsettling is a vintage wheelchair and an in tune music box that happens to play...the exact same original piece John had been composing.

John begins a quest to solve the mystery of his new home with the help of his historical real estate representative, Claire (Trish Van Devere) one of those attractive women from the cinematic land of lonely working (not prostitute) girls who seem to be saving themselves for the day a usually older and less attractive male outsider comes to town. 
Claire and John invite a pair of mediums into the house to identify John's squatter. In the film's most unsettling scene, the earnest psychic speaks to the ether, communicating with the ghost via scribble. I won't spoil the nature of John's haunting, but much like the John's own story, it ultimately proves to be a satisfying combination of the sad and scary.

On the other hand, the sheer nature of The Changeling's plot offers a small set of limitations. The ultimate mystery is quite interesting, but it also signals the end of some of the film's more potent scares. Perhaps I've simply seen too many wronged ghost seeking peace tales, but once we know how to solve John and Joseph's problem, the film loses some of its terrifying urgency. That doesn't necessarily take away from the chilling moments before it--I never thought I could be so afraid of a bouncing ball from a film that wasn't called TROLL--and ultimately, The Changeling is an effectively chilling yarn.
High Points
I sometimes forget how a good actor makes a simple story so much more interesting. As John, George C. Scott carries a gravitas that never lets you forget his character's tragedy. It also helps that he almost looks like he's a surprise party away from a heart attack at every turn.

No matter how old I get and how many CGI demons tease my soul, I'll never be immune to the eeriness of choral music, children's whispers, or toys ending up where they shouldn't be
Low Points
Though I loved the haunting piano melody that creeps throughout the film, some of the other scoring is a tad too obvious in channeling when the ghostly happenings are on deck
Considering how good Scott is and how compelling his character's story is, the somewhat forced inclusion of Wood's Claire almost takes a little away from what should really be his exclusive story

Lessons Learned
Based on every horror movie I've seen from The Blob '88 to this one, phone booths did far more harm than good (sorry Bill & Ted)
When planning a seance, always be sure to stock extra paper and many sharpened pencils

Dusty wheelchairs have bad attitudes

The Changeling is a much loved ghost story, and rightly so. As Shiftless pointed out, it's a true example of craftsmanship and storytelling in how it does so much with so little. That being said, it didn't quite terrify me in a way that invaded my nightmares (that evening, my dreams involved The Omega Man, Step Up, and a communal steak) but it caught my breath more than once and ultimately held me in a state of nerves for most of its running time. A satisfying, well-made thriller that every genre fan should indeed seek out. 


  1. I was recommended this movie by someone who said that it was the scariest thing they had ever seen. I liked it quite a bit, and I did find the first part of it pretty damned scary (that wheelchair was cool) but like you I found that once the mystery was solved the scares pretty much dried up.

    So I guess call this a "me too!"

    I never thought I could be so afraid of a bouncing ball from a film that wasn't called TROLL

    Have you ever seen Mario Bava's Kill, Baby, Kill or Fellini's Toby Dammit segment of the (otherwise uninteresting) Poe anthology film Spirits of the Dead? If you want a scary bouncing ball, those will give you a scary bouncing ball. (Almost the exact same one in fact; Fellini's film, er, "borrows" its imagery from Bava's, but both are worth watching on their own terms. The recent Bluray version of Spirits of the Dead is the one to see, as it fixes the soundtrack problems from the earlier dvd.)

    There's also the old British tv show The Prisoner, though that's more of a "bouncing weather balloon". Avoid the recent remake series, which totally sucks.

  2. I just watched this for the first time last month when it aired on IFC. After hearing for years what a gem it was, I have to say I found it really overrated. It's not bad, just bland. Scott is great, but the plot is very standard issue and there just isn't much to the mystery. It's a classy movie, with top-shelf actors and handsome production values, but I wouldn't call it a classic.

  3. Ooooh, Pearce, I've never seen ANY of those movies! Troll totally ruined bouncing balls for me. That VHS cover was way too frightening, even's Troll. I've been intrigued by the concept of The Prisoner, so I'll take your advice and check out the of these days.

    I can see your disappointment Jeff. It was definitely a little overhyped for me, but I do think that first hour is incredibly effective. I think you and I have probably just seen a few too many ghost stories where the ghosts aren't the real bad guys.

  4. It's been in my queue for quite sometime. Those screencaps are reminiscent of Black Christmas in atmospheric effect but I have that retro fetish that won't quit.

    Hopefully I'll have to opportunity to make an assessment about this one soon.

    You all make it sound at least, worth the watch.

  5. Definitely worth a watch, especially since so many genre fans hold it in such high regard. Watch it as a double George C. Scott feature with The Exorcist III!