The Changeling

The Changeling (1980)Synopsis: Here is an award-winning feature that boldly mixes a frightful ghost story with a great suspense plot and keeps you guessing all the way.

George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere star in a thriller that challenges the viewer to solve its mystery. It’s a haunted-house adventure complete with séances, nocturnal grave-diggings, ghostly spirits, and an ancient puzzle jealously guarded by a devious man (Academy Award winner Melvyn Douglas). Scott is splendid as the man who becomes an unwilling instrument of a ghost’s revenge and learns to trust no one. Eerily entwining a detective story with the mystery of the supernatural, The Changeling delivers solid entertainment and a frightening good time.

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The Changeling 7.5

eyelights: the long silences. the eerie atmosphere. the mystery.
eyesores: the b-quality performances, direction and production.

“That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.”

1980’s ‘The Changeling’ is a Canadian horror film based on a true story. It is notable for being the first winner of the Best Picture award at the Genie Awards, Canada’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. Amazingly enough, the Academy of Canadian Cinema was only established in 1979, the year prior to the release of this film. It also won seven of its nine other nominations, including Best Foreign Actor for George C. Scott.

The story takes place in Seattle, Washington (although the events that it is based on took place in Denver, Colorado). John Russell is a composer looking for a new home after having survived the accidental death of his family. He decides to settle into an old disused mansion, but is soon troubled by disturbances in the house. At his wits’ end, he decides to explore the house and reveal its deep dark secret.

What distinguished this haunted house film from others of its ilk is the tone of the piece. Although, on paper, it’s likely no different from classic ghost stories since time immemorial, this picture is strong on atmosphere: it’s filled with POV shots (suggesting lurking spirits) and, instead of filling every moment with dialogues or scares, it serves up long silences, putting us alone in the mansion with Russell.

It doesn’t even offer a score much of the time.

So when the disturbances come, they have a lot of impact: a slamming door can get lost in incessant noise, and a dripping faucet gives off a much different tone when heard echoing inside a large empty space such as this one. Between that and the mansion itself (the interior for which was actually a set), the film has personality, mood. The mansion was as much if not more of a character than the people themselves,

The most interesting character, naturally, is Russell, played by George C. Scott. I’m not a great fan of his: every time I see him in a picture he seems to bellow his way through it. I find it grating, irritating. Here he has to remain silent a lot of the time, and I enjoyed the gravitas that he injected the part with. I also liked that he had a wider range of emotion, showing his character’s vulnerability in a few instances.

I really liked that Russell was written to be sharper than the usual haunted house movie protagonist. For instance, even though inexplicable things occur around him, like finding a music box that plays a melody he had just composed, after he is convinced to bring in a medium, he nonetheless decided to record the séance. He may have been starting to believe in the paranormal, but he remained cautious.

His counterpoint is Claire Norman, the realtor who sells him the house. Naturally, they hit it off, and begin to investigate the house’s history together. I had a serious issue with this trite plot development until I read that actress Trish Van Devere and George C Scott were a real-life couple at the time and were making films together. Now, I simply figure that the script was adapted for the couple. Could be worse.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

If I have any issuesit’s with the script, in the way that it leaves us hanging half of the time. For some reason, when incidents happen, they always end abruptly – we are never shown or told what happened after that. It’s unfathomable that there would be no impact, no follow-up; it’s as if Russell just shrugged off those incidents and moved on. Not only does this make no sense whatsoever, but it’s unsatisfying.

The second thing that bothers me is a haunted house cliché that I find rather stupid: why in the world would the spirits in a haunted house get so upset that they’d destroy the house? I mean, from a cinematic standpoint, it’s exciting. I get that. But, logically, it would be to the spirits’ advantage for the house to remain until they’ve accomplished what they aim to do – not have a fit and blow it up.

But, as in many other films of the genre, the spirit starts shaking it apart.

Um… what’s the point?

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Still, aside for some rather cheap-sounding Foley work and sound effects, ‘The Changeling’ is an excellent horror film: he mystery that is revealed is nothing surprising, but the picture is satisfying, chilling and the mood that is set is just right for a late night viewing, huddled on the couch. Plus which it’s not gory or especially violent so there’s nothing objectionable. It’s just a solid ghost story.

It’s no wonder that the film is highly regarded by filmmakers such as Martin Scorcese and Alejandro Amenábar. ‘The Changeling’ is fairly minimalistic in the way that it scares its audience – a rare feat indeed.

Story: 7.5
Acting: 7.5
Production: 7.5

Chills: 7.0
Gore: 1.0
Violence: 2.0

Date of viewing: September 26, 2014

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