*** 1\2 (out of ****)
For the last few years during the month of October I would normally review classic horror films to celebrate Halloween. Unfortunately I haven't done that this year as I was busy attending the Chicago International Film Festival and because of the Charlie Chaplin retrospective going on in the city, I have been focused on not only Chaplin's films but silent comedy in general. So, I'm going to try and make up for some lost time and review some good horror films.
"The Changeling" (1980), which should not be confused with the Client Eastwood film made in 2008, has gained an impeccable reputation among horror film fans as one of the most scariest films made. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese listed it among his personal favorite horror films of all time.
Some of that praise may over sell the film. If I praise it too much, I may be setting you up for disappointment. The film won't be able to live up to such high expectations. Yet, I do have to be honest and say the movie is effective. It is a well made film which creates an eerie atmosphere. Hungarian director, Peter Medak, proves, given the right material, he can be quite the craftsmen. Unfortunately his career has not amounted to much since this film. He would go on to direct movies such as "Species II" (1998). Prior to this he directed Peter O' Toole in "The Ruling Class" (1972), for which O' Toole was nominated for an Oscar.
George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a man who witnessed the death of his wife and child, as they were killed in a tragic car accident. The film jumps to four months later. We learn John is a composer. He has moved to a small town where he will be teaching music at a university, while also working on a new piece.
John ends up going to the historical society in hopes of renting a house. Here he meets Claire (Trish Van Devere), who believes she has found the perfect house for him. A mansion with a large music room, furnished with its own piano. Although at first weary of the size of the home, John eventually agrees.
"The Changeling" at first moves at a very slow pace. Nothing much happens as the film is setting up characters and attempting to foreshadow later events. The movie is trying to give us a feel of the location and John's personality. But once the movie begins to settle into its storyline "The Changeling" takes us on a psychological roller-coaster.
John soon believes the house is trying to communicate with him. Unexplained noises are heard. Doors swing open unexpectedly. And objects switch locations in the house. In one of the most frightening scenes in the film, while recording himself composing, John hears the spirit's voice.
Bewildered by these events John contacts Claire in hopes of learning about the history of the home. Strangely enough, much information is now missing. The film now starts to resemble one of those police procedures with John and Claire rummaging in libraries looking for public records regarding the property and its former occupants.
This research leads them to Senator Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas). Back in 1909 his family lived in the house. John thinks the spirit may be related to the senator. But how can John find out what the senator knows about the house?
"The Changeling" plays with the usual horror techniques. The creepy music, the anticipation of objects jumping out in the corner of the frame and so on. But "The Changeling" is the kind of horror film I like. This is not a slasher film. There is no serial killer on the loose cutting people's throats. The film is not a blood-bath. I don't usually find those type of films scary, mostly I just find them disgusting. "The Changeling" is a stylish horror film.
The question I always ask myself when watching a horror film is, "what would I do if that happened to me?" The more realistic a horror film is, I find the scarier it is. There are a few things which happen in this movie that I doubt could happen in real life however, there are enough moments in the film which if they did happen to me in real life would simply scare me to death. The film has an unrelenting intensity to it. We just never know where the film is going to go. What is going to jump out from behind?
There have been those who claim George C. Scott doesn't do enough to flesh out the character. We never fear for his life. These comments I think are missing the point. The spirit in the house doesn't mean to cause harm to John. It seeks John's help. So, yes, it is true, I never felt John was in danger. But, I did fear for the people around him, who try to prevent him from investigating.
"The Changeling" is more effective than "The Haunting" (1963), the film directed by Robert Wise. Both movies involve a house trying to contact the living. Unfortunately "The Changeling" came out in the same year as Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980), also a film about a house which takes control of the living. "The Shining" may have overshadowed this film.
Still, "The Changeling" is well worth watching. Imagine watching this movie all alone in the dark. I'll admit, the film had me looking over my shoulder more than once.
One more interesting note, Melvyn Douglas appeared in another ghost story the following year in a film called "Ghost Story" (1981) which co-starred Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Housemen. That too is worth watching.