#3 The Changeling
Director: Peter Medak
Cast: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas.
Released 1980. 107 minutes.
The ghost/haunted house story has always been my favourite sub genre of the horror field. Ever since growing up and watching the BBC’s ‘Ghost Stories For Christmas’ and discovering, through those plays, the works of MR James and the like have I loved a good ghost story. I would supplement those all too rare television programmes by avidly devouring the Pan Books of Ghost Stories and The Fontana books of Ghost Stories. Nothing has changed. Whilst I love most, if not all, sub genres in the horror field the ghost story is the only one that still has the power to actually scare me.
I first came across ‘The Changeling’ in the mid 1980’s on VHS. I rented it out and dubbed myself a copy (naughty, I know) overnight without actually watching it and it took me another year to actually to get around to screening the tape. I remember the first time I tried I was so scared (give me a break, I was 13 years old) that I could not make it past the first thirty minutes. A week or two later I plucked up my courage again (this time in the middle of the day, with the sun shining brightly through the window, and a house full of people) and managed to watch it all the way through. Suffice to say it did it’s job well. Many years later I bought a region one DVD of the film put it on my shelf and then promptly forgot all about it.
That was about 15 years ago. A couple of days ago I found myself back in front of that same shelf (actually, it’s a completely different shelf in a completely different house) whilst looking for something to watch and ‘The Changeling’ caught my eye. My memory of the actual film was fairly hazy. I remembered the opening scene well enough, the bouncing ball, and the wheelchair, but not much else. So, without further ado, I slipped it into the machine.
What ‘The Changeling’ does really well is have good actors behaving in a believable manner. Usually in these types of films most of us would have packed our bags and left the second the ball bounced down the stairs once it had been thrown into the river but because of John Russell’s (George C. Scott) situation (his wife and child being killed in a accident four months previously) he almost has nothing to lose in regards to the haunting and being an intelligent man he is drawn to the mystery. This does not mean he is not frightened in certain circumstances, he clearly is, but is brave enough to tackle the problems head on. You would not have found me going back to a house in the dead of night to go down a disused well where a dead body had just been exhumed. The first hour of the film is a masterclass in suspense and slow build. ‘The Haunting’ (the 1963 film, not the 1999 remake) also does this very well. Layers are added. The first signs of a ghostly residence can, and often are, easily explained away, but as the film progresses it’s quite clear it’s not an air bubble in the heating pipes making those noises.
The film is let down in the final twenty minutes when it turns back to standard horror film cliches, most notably the child’s wheelchair chasing a character down a flight of stairs for no discernible reason. But don’t let this put you off. The film is extremely well made. The photography is beautiful, the direction unobtrusive, the script tight, and the acting understated and believable. It’s been mentioned, by more astute judges of films that me, that the Japanese film ‘Ringu’ owes a lot to ‘The Changeling’ and I can see that point completely. I would also say that Stephen King’s ‘Bag of Bones’ (both the book and the TV mini series) probably owe more than a nod to ‘The Changeling’ but I feel that ‘The Changeling’ is the superior work in both comparisons.
In a spooky coincidence after I finished watching the DVD I logged on to my computer and went to one of my favourite pages, ‘Trailers From Hell’ (check it out, it’s awesome http://trailersfromhell.com/) and lo and behold that days trailer was for…’The Changeling’. I felt a chill, I can tell you.