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Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Changeling (1980) - revisiting an old flame

"How did you die, Joseph? Did you die in this house? Why do you remain?"

I was driving home from work a few days ago when a song from the mid-1980's came on the radio that I hadn't heard in ages. The name of the song isn't important, suffice to say it was bought for me by my first love ( do I hear an ahhh, bless him?) and I must have played it to death at the time, I loved it. The memories of that time and and the people who were in my life that suddenly filled my head were intoxicating - such is the power of music. Yes, I started thinking of the particular person who bought me that song, as I said, she was my first love and well, it was a special time in my life. Such is the way my mind works, I started thinking of the science fiction and horror movies that we used to watch together. 
Her favourite count..

She was a huge classic Horror fan, particularly of Dracula in his various incarnations ( she had a particular obsession with Frank Langella's performance I seem to remember) 
and it's fair to say that she is arguably one of the biggest influences I've had in my education in the genre. 

The one single movie that has pride of place in my memory banks from that time was in fact a film that I proudly 'discovered' for us both. She had been isolated at home after being diagnosed with tonsillitis and after a few days of moping around ( yeah, what a suck) I decided to wander down to my local video store to find something to take my mind of things. This being 1984, the video rental industry was still pretty much in it's infancy so finding something new and worth watching was always a challenge in itself, I remember being less than hopeful of finding anything that would catch my attention. After what seemed like hours of deliberation whether to watch a movie I had seen a hundred times or a movie I had seen five hundred times my eyes caught sight of a dark looking video case with an orange effect lit  wheelchair in the dimly lit shadow of what looked like a child. The video case was hidden away on the far end of the shelf and by its immaculate condition it was clear that it had hardly been rented - the movie was called 'The Changeling'

As one does, I read the blurb on the back and it should be immediately put down on record that I didn't hold out too much hope of it being that good. Yes, it starred George. C. Scott, one of my favourite actors ( and in my humble opinion, still the best 'Scrooge' there has been on the silver screen). However, the rest of the movie's synopsis didn't inspire many other positive feelings. I had never heard of it, even though it was only four years old at the time (thanks to 'her' I regarded myself as something of a horror movie aficionado) and it's themes of haunted houses, ghosts and seances seemed derivative at best. At worse it also apparently lacked any gore, blood or scream queen element to it either, a recipe for disaster it seemed to my horror-loving mind. So I asked the dependable video store assistant about the movie, a man whose opinion I invariably trusted. He told me that the film had been in the store for over a year with just a handful of rentals. It had done nothing on it's cinematic release and gone pretty much straight to video…… and yet……and yet……he said that without fail, every single person had returned the movie and told him that it was quite simply the scariest and most terrifying film they had ever seen. He seemed particularly amused about one customer who had stated that they couldn't sleep with the light off since seeing it. High praise indeed. I was intrigued. I was desperate for something to watch from the horror genre and then tell 'her' about it. I decided against renting it. I instead bought it outright on the spot.

It was only when I was on my way home that I started to doubt whether or not video store man was exaggerating and had just landed another sucker to buy one of his 'never gonna sell products' with a made up pack of lies about it. There was nothing for it but to put aside my doubts, turn of the lights, draw the curtains, take the phone off the hook and put on the video.

The movie scared the living crap out of me………….

"It's a nice house, the attic needs a bit of fixing up though…."

The plot is cunningly simple. The always excellent George C Scott plays Dr. John Russell a well known classical music composer. The films begins with him and his family on a winter holiday in upstate New York where his wife and daughter are killed in a traffic accident.  Following their deaths he moves across country to Seattle and starts to try and rebuild his life where rents a large dilapidated mansion and slowly begins to teach again and start re-writing his musical scores. However, nightmares of the accident that killed his wife and daughter continue to haunt his dreams

Soon, Dr Russell soon realises that all is not right in his new home - in fact it seems to be haunted. The ghost turned out to be the spirit of a boy who makes its existence know by various incidents such as loud banging noises coming from the attic, shattering windows, abruptly opening and shutting doors, and dramatically appears during a seance. Russell, sceptical and still grief stricken, slowly realises that the ghost is looking for him to provide some form of justice and so investigates the identity of the dead child and finds that the mystery is linked to a powerful local family.

So there you have it, a clever yet effective chiller. Yet outside it's loyal fan base, this movie is still widely ignored yet its contemporaries of the time such as The Amityville Horror have gained a huge following whilst being immensely inferior to this movie. So I think it's time we redressed the balance eh?

So why is this movie so good, and yet even today is relatively unknown outside it's loyal fan-base? As I mentioned previously, the themes within it have been done a thousand times in horror stories - the haunted house, objects suddenly moving through their own accord, mysterious loud noises, a initially disbelieving owner slowly realising that the ghost is real, a medium holding a seance - all familiar themes and often badly made. What perhaps makes this movie superior is its dedication to slowly building up the audiences tensions through careful and sympathetic character development and then providing scenes of genuine terror where often the terror lies not with what we see ( because often we see nothing) but instead leaving our imagination to digest and experience for itself. 

"Oh Bugger……"
Perhaps one of the factors thats sets The Changeling apart from films of a similar nature are the actors performances - they are simply stunning. Scott as Dr. Russell in particular gives us a warm, confident yet vulnerable individual who slowly changes from a figure of disbelief, moving through terror, to a point where he truly wants to help the spirit of the murdered boy. My favourite scene comes when the boy's spirit is first trying to communicate with Russell - it's a sneakily simple yet effective set-piece that simply involves Russell first hearing, then seeing a child's rubber ball bouncing down the wooden stairs. After taking the ball and throwing it over a bridge into a river he returns to the house…… only for the now wet rubber ball to come slowly bouncing down the stairs again. There is no blood, no violence, yet the feeling of true terror that Scott portrays simply through his facial expression and reactions is truly amazing. See the clip below to get a flavour of what I'm saying.

The 'ball on the stairs' scene  - simple yet effective horror

Another simple yet chilling scene of The Changeling takes place during the seance and John Russell's subsequent listen to the audio recording of the seance. The deeply unsettling atmosphere it creates as we see the 'inhabited' psychic medium frantically scribbling down the spirit's answers to her questions with ever increasing savagery is excellent. Again, the scene is beautifully acted by Scott as his character is clearly unsettled, his facial expressions and reactions to the seance bely his own still remaining skeptical belief about the experience…...until he replays the audio recording of the seance in which he hears a child's voice answering the psychic's questions. The two scenes that i've just described ( as is the famous 'wheelchair moving on its own' sequence) all sound rather tame and insipid, but believe me, it is horror at its very very best.

The Seance scene - its been done countess times in movies, bit never as well as this.

The Changeling could be described as being old-fashioned in it's 'Hitchcockian' approach to film making - instead of 'diving' straight into the blood and gore instead decides to treat the audience with a modicum of intelligence and patience. It pull slowly ushers the audience into its grasp, at first understanding then challenging our own sense of scepticism until it generates a genuine richly textured horror.

This may not end well…..

The movie's concentration on character development makes us care for these people, even when we discover the horror perpetrated by the murdering father we still can understand why he did what he did, even though its was act of pure evil. This in turn makes the film's atmosphere become ever more chilling and unsettling. So when the film's most terrifying events finally take place, the audience has been psychologically prepared for being well and truly frightened out of their skins. 

A final element of this stunning film is the use of the house - as in any good haunted house movie it should become an additional cast character in itself. The masterful direction makes the perfect use of the big spaces to help focus attention on Russell's grief and loneliness The camera of tens looms around the set to give the sensation of the ghost watching and listening to the new occupiers. The house is always a main character making sure that the chills are genuine, the attic room in particular is the personification of eeriness. the soundtrack too should not be forgotten as the movie is constantly accompanied by some sweeping musical arrangements from Ken Wannberg (the music box theme composed by Howard Blake), without ever taking away the audiences attention from the film itself.

So there you have it - in the space of a few moments my mind moved from a much loved piece of music, through a much loved girl I once knew, to a movie that I love.

If anyone reading this has never seen this truly amazing piece of film-making, then rent it, stream it, download it, or watch the various sections of it that you can watch on youtube. If you have seen it before, well watch it again…..


  1. First of all, fabulous review! I own a copy of this movie myself, and just finished watching it (again) broad daylight...although actually, it's been raining, so the light is somewhat muted. You hit all the right marks. It is too bad that this has been labeled as "horror". The great Christopher Lee knows the difference between "horror" and "terror". The Changeling is most definitely the latter.

  2. Thanks Alex for the kind comments - I need to get a new 'hard copy' of it myself and watch it all afresh, in daylight or night!