AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 107 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
John Russell, a composer living in New York, moves cross-country to Washington state following the deaths of his wife and daughter in a car accident. In Seattle, John rents a large, old and eerie Victorian-era mansion and begins piecing his life back together by returning to lecture at a college he once worked at many years ago and composing. However, he starts to hear loud thumping noises at 62m in the morning, doors close on their own, and windows shattering. He also discovers a blocked off flight of stairs leading up to an attic where he finds a music box dated 1910 which plays the same piece of music that he’s composing. He decides to hold a séance, where the spirit manifests itself and gives him a series of clues regarding its murder….
Much like The Legend Of Hell House, The Changeling is another ghost movie from the 70’s which has a reputation of both being very good and being very scary. Now if you read my review of the former I posted the other day you’ll probably remember that I found it to be a little disappointing with regard to both those aspects, though it improved somewhat on a second viewing and certainly wasn’t a bad movie except for its stupid ending. I hadn’t seen The Changeling at all until the other night and was setting myself up for a letdown. The letdown didn’t really happen, though they may partly have been due to having not that high expectations. The Changeling actually managed to be properly creepy and frightening for its first half, and worked me up nicely, but then….well, the film certainly didn’t ‘lose it’, as it had a good, compelling story well told, but it kind of lost the edge that the first half contained. As I mentioned in my review of What Lies Beneath [though The Changeling’s second half is still far superior to What Lies Beneath’s which is just so messy], this is something that is quite common to this sort of movie, as being scared gives way to investigating why the characters, and us, are being scared. Surprisingly stylish and even ‘full-on’ in places for a film that seems to generally be considered a very subtle piece, The Changeling may not quite be the spooky masterpiece some claim it to be, but it’s still a must see for fans of the genre.
Its origins lie in a newspaper article found by Diana Maddox, the then-wife of co-producer Joel B. Michaels, written by writer Russell Hunter about a ghostly encouinter he had when he was living in a place called the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion in Denver, Colorado, in the 60’s. With George C. Scott attached to the project from the beginning, it originally had Tony Richardson attached as director, but he left to do something else, then Donald Cammell, who left because of ”creative differences”. Peter Medak, who’d only made one film prior to this one, was sent the script and after reading it was so scared that he wouldn’t go downstairs in his house. Medak only agreed to do it if they scrapped the idea of shooting it in the house that Cammell had chosen, a place which Medak thought didn’t look haunted, and instead built a Victorian façade on an existing house for the exteriors and elaborate interconnecting sets for the interiors. After much deliberation, the producers agreed. The film was shot in Vancouver with some establishing shots in New York and Seattle. During the shooting of the ball scene, it wouldn’t land in the right place despite trying various methods. Medak decided to give it a go and it hit the spot first time round. 79 year old Melvyn Douglas was making Being There concurrently and constantly had to fly back and forth between Vancouver and various California locations. Editor Barry Wince was replaced by Lila Pedersen by the producers who wanted a faster tempo to the picture. The film was a moderate box office success.
The opening titles, set against black with only the sound of a quiet wind to accompany them, lead in to a scene which is almost as traumatic as the beginning to Don’t Look Now. It’s snowy winter, and John and his wife Cathy are pushing their broken down car out of the road, then Cathy and their daughter Joanna start playing in the snow while John sees a [very conveniently placed] phone box and goes inside it to ring for help. There, he sees a truck trying to avoid a car coming the other way and crashing into his car, wife and daughter. What makes the moment so effective is that John seems to sense something is wrong a few seconds before the incident actually happens, but it’s as if he’s trapped in the phone box and can’t get out. Though it’s never stated, I wonder if John’s subsequent grief is made worse by feelings of guilt, that he could maybe have saved them. Anyway, John moves away to a hotel, gets back his old job, and thinks he’s found the perfect house to hole up and do some composing. The house, like the one in Burnt Offerings, is Victorian with all the creepiness that goes with that, but unlike the one in that film is far more sparse. Medak and cinematographer John Coquillon use the setting to greater effect though, with a brilliant early tracking sequence where the camera takes in a woman cleaning the dining room table, then moves on to pass a man putting some books on shelves, then slowly tracks down a corridor to finally reveal John playing the piano.
What with bumps in the night [or rather early morning] and other stuff leading to a glimpse of a dead boy in the bath, plus somebody telling him: “This house is not fit to live in. It doesn’t want people”, it’s a wonder why John remains in the house, but then it seems that he could be almost numb to it all after what he’s suffered. After finding a hidden attic with a music box [another one], and discovering that the previous owner’s had both their daughters die in similar accidents, John opts to hold a séance, and it’s a good one, what with the actress playing the medium almost underplaying being possessed, though the most spine chilling bit of the film is just after when John plays back the recording of the séance and this time hears the voice of the boy ghost. As the camera goes up the stairs to show the boy being drowned by his father in the bath in a rather upsetting murder scene, we hear the poor boy’s voice crying “Father, don’t” and it’s just so sad and eerie at the same time. The boy then reveals his name – Joseph Carmichael – the surname being the same as a local senator – then gives out a set of clues which Joseph, aided by estate agent Claire, decide to follow up. The story is fascinating, and takes in a section with a boby in a well which I’m damn sure influenced Ringu, but some of the tension is lessened by relying more on talk and non-supernatural matters, and it all climaxes a little lamely with the house being on fire. One almost feels cheated at the lack of a climactic scare, the film instead concentrating on following a story to its natural conclusion.
The Changeling is famous in horror circles for its wheelchair which moves by itself, and I wondered if an early scene where it just travels a few inches was the scene in question until we got an actual chase later, a bit which didn’t terrify me in the way it probably should have done, though I could say the almost same about the Psycho shower scene. I’d read so much about it, and seen several imitations and even spoofs of it, so that when I watched the actual scene, it didn’t really have the right effect and I was more admiring its technical brilliance. More unsettling for me in The Changeling was Joanna’s ball bouncing down the stairs to John; good chilling stuff. And what works really well throughout is the way the camera constantly moves, often in circular patterns, around the rooms of the house, the wide angle lenses chosen making the environment look a bit distorted and ‘off’. Sometimes we even seem to adopt Joseph’s point of view while we never actually see him except in the flashback and as a vision of a dead body. It’s all very well handled by Medak [the first and best film of The Krays] who never directed another film like it in his rather spotty career, and who wound up doing mostly TV work.
George C. Scott, paired with his wife Trish Van Devere for the sixth time, rather underplays his role and almost seems too low key, but then he is playing something of a shell of a man. It’s Melvyn Douglas [who in the twilight of his career would play a not too dissimilar role the following year in Ghost Story] who gives the standout performance as a person with great power and authority where one can visibly see an underlying fear starting to creep through. I also loved the score by the little used Rick Wilkins. Sometimes the film seems to rely a bit too much on the music, which is present very often, but it’s such splendidly effective stuff, Wilkins using everything from scratching string patterns to wordless vocals to unnerve the viewer, though the lullaby-type piece that John writes and is heard in the music box [something not really explained though I’m not sure it needs to be] was written by Howard Blake. It’s the best horror score this film music fan has heard in ages and he’s now going to go and order a copy. Despite dipping a bit in its second half, and in the end – except for that moment just after the séance I described earlier – not having the feeling of sadness I think most of the great ghost stories possess in varying degrees, The Changeling still works very well in places and should still frighten – maybe not loads but certainly a bit – late at night with the lights out. And it’ll probably stay with you while the effect of loads of jump scares in the latest new horror has vanished.