Friday, October 14, 2011

Overlooked Gems #10: The Changeling

Grade: 82 (A-)

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a strong time for ghost stories. 1979’s popular The Amityville Horror kick-started a brief run of haunted house/location movies, each far stronger than that hokey hit. Between Amityville and the Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper film Poltergeist in 1982 were John Carpenter’s flawed but fascinating The Fog and Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining in 1980. The Canadian horror film The Changeling was also released in 1980, and while the film is loved by horror fanatics and won the Genie Award for Best Canadian film, its influence is not as widespread as its contemporaries. A shame, considering how well told this deceptively simple ghost story is.

New York composer Dr. John Russell (George C. Scott) is grief stricken after the deaths of his wife and young daughter in a freak car accident. Russell takes a teaching position and moves into an old Victorian mansion. He is well liked by the staff and students, and he develops a friendship with his real estate agent Claire (Scott’s real-life wife Trish Van Devere). But, as with any haunted house story, something is amiss. Doors swing open and shut without apparent cause. Loud banging noises come from the center of the house. Eventually Russell discovers an attic containing a child’s wheelchair. A medium reveals that a previous owner murdered his ailing son, and that the mystery may be connected to a powerful senator (Melvyn Douglas).

The most effective haunted house movies often find real creepy houses for their location (see: Session 9). The Changeling uses sets, but the depiction of the house as a living, breathing, hurting entity gives the film a tactile quality nonetheless. Every room of the eerie house feels lived in to the point of being ancient. Yet even before the phantom noises begin, the film has a haunted quality from Scott’s terrific performance. Scott never oversells his character’s grief in the early scenes, nor does he go over-the-top in the later, more frightening scenes. It’s a remarkably grounded portrayal of a man eager to move on with his life but plagued by a horrible past event. His discovery leads to a parallel character: Douglas, a pillar of the community who owes his prestige to a terrible secret.

The film is not without its flaws. The ending is a bit too conventional for an otherwise low-key chiller (although it does provide some gorgeous images), and the ghost’s powers sometimes seem to extend beyond the areas it would logically haunt (then again, the “rules” for ghost stories are fairly loose). But these are minor imperfections in a beautifully melancholy tale about the horrors of the past and the price some are willing to pay for power.

October Overlooked Gems Schedule:

October 21: The Funhouse
October 28: Exorcist III: Legion

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