Monday, November 16, 2009
The Changeling (1980)
Even though I have a deep love for the horror genre, it's very rare when something actually reaches below my skin and gives me genuine chills. It's not because what I see is bad - well, sometimes it can be, but we won't worry about that - I've seen some movies, read some books, and subscribe to one comic that is a monthly punch in the gut (Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrow's Crossed). It may be because certain primal images deliver the blow straight to the subconscious fear center and causes the brain to make with the heebie-jeebies.
Welcome to "The Changeling," directed by Peter Medak. This offering from 1980 (the year the Phillies won their first World Series1) features George C. Scott as John Russell, a composer and university professor who, in the beginning of the film loses his family. They don't just leave. No, they are brutally taken from him in a horrible automobile accident that he witnesses just mere feet away. The movie starts with that. It kicks you in your solar plexus, then backs off to say "I'll wait until you catch your breath."
Without going into too much revealing detail, we get to know John a little better as he slowly recovers from mourning his wife and daughter. He's having trouble, and who wouldn't? He takes a job teaching at the university while he composes music. Living quarters? Well, there's the rub. He rents a house suggested to him by a nice lady, Claire (Trish Van Devere, Scott's real-life wife), from the historical society. Seems like a nice place. I'd live there.
Things start happening, though. A strange, rhythmic banging sound echoes through the house. Water taps turn on by themselves. John sees the image of a young boy in the water of the tub. An attic window spits glass at John outside. He gets disturbed, but also curious. Seems to be strange, especially the laughter. The attic itself is hidden behind boards, and when he opens it, it appears to have been left in its state since 1909. There's a wheelchair, a music box, a journal and oodles of cobwebs.
But when the little red ball that once belonged to his daughter rolls down the stairs not once, but twice (and believe me, the second time's the charm)...well, that's when the movie asks you "recovered from that kick yet, because I'm warming up my foot."
From here, it turns into a mystery rolled up with the creepy aspect, as John and Claire try to solve the mystery of who this ghost is, how and why he died, and what he wants. There's a seance, and you know some good will come of that. Oh, it does. But it was the post-seance that gave me the biggest chills, as John listens to the tape made of the seance. Readers, turn your TV's up for this entire movie. The sound is incredible, and is a character all in itself. Sometimes the noise is slamming into your ear, at others it's not quite there, like you heard it in your imagination. And I'm telling you, when John hears what he hears on that tape...
As characters in a horror/suspense movie, John and Claire displayed traits that really endeared them to me, such as intelligence and curiosity. Not dumb curiosity of the "let's go into Stabyerguts Woods and find firewood" sort. When John finds evidence of an extra room boarded up, he tears it down. I'd have done the exact same thing. He's not petrified with fear, though he has every right. He's curious and he wants to help find justice for this spirit. I hoped Claire wouldn't be the less smart of the duo, and I was pleased when she showed the same depth and brains that John had. The acting by Scott and Van Devere was top-notch.
You want dumb? Try police detective De Witt (John Colicos - the supervillain Mikko Cassadine on General Hospital in the 80's...don't ask how I know that). On the payroll of the movie's antagonist, Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), De Witt makes threats and demands in a GRAND SHAKESPEAREAN VOICE that made me wish he was in the film for longer. Threats against a man trying to help solve a mystery about a ghost? Eh, not a good idea.
Looking for something creepy, atmospheric, well-acted, and well-made with believable characters and truly chilling moments? Find a way to get this movie, pop it in your DVD player or whatever the looters didn't take after the zombie apocalypse, and turn the lights off. You won't be disappointed.
Oh, yeah, and you might want to remove all little plastic red balls from your home.
1As a lifelong Phillies fan, I am contractually obligated to add this every time the year 1980 is mentioned.