Well, she agreed to write up a little something for us, and so without further ado, I present the very first guest column here at Final Girl, written by some girl who calls herself Filthy Assistant. She's wanted by the authorities for something called "human" "trafficking", whatever that means, so she needs to use an alias. It's awfully kind of her to take a time-out from running from the po-po to write this, don't you think?
What's the most unsettling image you can think of? A crazy Japanese woman creeping across the floor to come get you? The demon face in The Exorcist? Your mother-in-law, legs akimbo, with a jar of crunchy peanut butter and the family Alsatian?
If you answered any of these, you've never seen The Changeling.
Those of us who have damn near burst open either a cushion or a loved one whilst watching Peter Medak's 1980 classic ghost story know there aren't many things more frightening than a child's red rubber ball THUD THUD THUDing down a flight of stairs.
George C. Scott plays John Russell, a distinguished composer who moves to Seattle and rents an old house from the Historical Preservation Society following the death of his wife and child. And yes, you guessed it, there is something in the house. In the words of the delightful Minnie, the Society's 'Employee Most Resembling A Bulldog 1979,' "That house is not fit to live in. No-one has been able to live in it. It doesn't want people."
But John Russell is not "no-one." Vulnerable from his recent personal tragedy and convinced that whatever haunts the house is desperately trying to communicate with him, John enlists the help of friend and Historical Preservation Society employee Claire Norman, played by George C's then wife, Trish Van Devere. Together they investigate the house's history in an attempt to uncover its secrets, and the film turns part horror, part murder mystery as our protagonist's quest for the truth (and the ghostly occurrences that haunt him) become more frantic. After some amateur detective work indicates Cora Bernard, a young girl living in the house in the early 1900s, was killed in a similar manner to John's own daughter, he arranges for a psychic to visit the house and the mystery begins to unfold.
The séance scene provides a perfect example of one of the spine-chilling shots that pepper the film. With all the guests seated at a table in dark, we see the attic door creak open of its own volition, followed by the camera sweeping at child height through the house and down the stairs towards the gathering. As the camera approaches the table, the psychic announces "The presence…is with us" and you will pee yourself slightly, I guarantee it. By the time John, alone in the house and trying to come to terms with what he's seen, plays back the audio recording he made of the séance, you will be wide-eyed and whimpering.
And not because of Alsatians, peanut butter or mother-in-laws.
So, an old house, a séance, a dead child - this may all sound like standard horror fare and you'll notice that many of the motifs have been cherry-picked by more recent films (The Ring springs to mind – obscure pun intentional) but the pacing and attention to detail is impeccable. It's testament to the completely absorbing atmosphere that even after ten viewings I still won't watch this film without a friend, relative or innocent passerby entering into a legally binding contract that they won't leave me alone in the house that night.
The Changeling is simply a classic, chilling ghost story. Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas provide strong turns but what makes this film for me is not the supporting cast or the skilfully sustained suspense; it's not the haunting soundtrack and it's not the sweeping camera shots that move eerily through the old house from a ghostly perspective. It's good old George C.
No matter how understated his performance, this is still a big bear of a man. He's been around. He's seen some things. He has, one suspects, no time for hokum, frippery, piffle or any of the other excellent words that I never get a chance to use.
So when George C. Scott backs away from something with a look of sheer terror on his face, as he does frequently in this film, then you know there is good reason to be very, very afraid.