FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

May 12, 2006

Ghost Week Day 5: The Changeling

When I started making a list of movies to review for Ghost Week, The Changeling sprang to mind almost immediately. As one of the few haunted house flicks that I find most unnervingly scary, there was no way to have this "event" and not talk about it. Most people who've seen it seem to be in agreement about it's effectiveness. In fact, I thought to myself one sunny afternoon, "Hey, doesn't that girl I know like The Changeling a whole bunch? Boy, if I could get her to write about it, then I'd have lots more time to devote to my crack habit helping the elderly!"

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?

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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.

12 comments:

The Retropolitan said...

I remember watching this with my family when I was about ten. Now, I have no recollection of it whatsoever.

theron said...

Yes, I've seen this. I think the MOST disturbing thing about this movie is the fact that George C. Scott was actually married to Trish Van Devere.

Nice job, Filth Assistant! I loved the Alsatian riff - that one never gets old.

Okay, Final Girl, you know what else you should've chosen to watch? "The Entity," with Barbara Hershey. That's a great ghost flick...and not just because the spirit indulges in carnal knowledge with Ms. Hershey. But...

Stacie Ponder said...

The Entity...hmm, yeah. I'm not really into watching rape flicks, though- even if it IS an invisible spirit doing the raping.

Stacie Ponder said...

And Retro...if you don't remember it, then you're prime for a-watchin'!

Katherine said...

Let me just say that whoever this guest author is, she did a sterling job and should probably receive ample payment for her valuable time in both beer and kittens.

Stacie Ponder said...

"Katherine", you're absolutely right...stellar, bang-up job. INstead of kittens and beer, though, I believe I'll reward her with a nice boat trip. Yes...a boat trip far out to sea...miles from where anyone can hear her scream--wait, I mean miles from the troubles of everyday life...

Matt Bradshaw said...

Yes, the rubber ball bouncing down the stairs will give even the heartiest of horror fans the willies.

Chadwick H. Saxelid said...

Let's see, I was 13 or so when The Changeling came out in theaters in 1980. Word around my school was that it wasn't the least bit scary. (For reference, something like Friday the 13th was considered The Most Frightening Film of All Time.) Sadly I skipped it, why I do not know, and did not see it until many, many years later. I was delighted to find that it was a genuinely frightening movie. (As opposed to Friday the 13th, which was simply shocking. There is a huge difference between shocking an audience and scaring it.) It is one of the few movies that has ever given me gooseflesh, what were those pubescent nimrods doing during this movie? They certainly weren't watching it.

Even more befuddling is how director Peter Medak, after doing such a wonderful job on this movie, wouldn't make another thriller until Species II...what happened?

Mark said...

This is probably the first ghost movie that really scared me. I was so happy to find it, years later, in a bargain bin (I think I picked it up on VHS for $2.99, or something like that.)

It freaked me out the second time just as much as it did the first. Great stuff, great review.

Des said...

The only ghost movie that ever had any lasting effect on me. Terrifying and morose.

George C friggin' Scott Baby!!! and it's Canadian!

katherine said...

"I believe I'll reward her with a nice boat trip."

I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.

You broke my heart.

Anonymous said...

What sticks out to me most about this excellent thriller, is Scott's performance. That scene where he's crying in bed is just so moving. So few ghost movies pay any attention to real grief, like this one did. It made it all the more real. LEave it up to grumpy Scott to make his character so human... A wonderful actor I truly miss.

I adore this movie. It's just fantastic and proves what one can do with some ingenuity and talent.

God Bless George!

Amanda By Night