Monday, 30 August 2010

The Changeling (1980)

Country: CANADA

The Changeling would have seemed antiquated and anachronistic at the time of its release. But the intervening years and current trend in horror for mindless torture and sadism have conspired to make this film seem a lot more intelligent than it actually is. The value of restraint, minimalism, and subtlety, has reached a premium in the horror genre, and although we may look back on The Changeling as an example of how to achieve this difficult blend, one must caution against a temptation to dilute the horror to such a degree that it becomes irrelevant. Nevertheless Peter Medak’s film is vastly superior to one of its immediate contemporaries of the haunted house sub-genre The Amityville Horror (1978 - a film I particularly dislike). But vastly inferior to another - The Shining (1980). In the former director Stuart Rosenberg failed to curb the hysteria and excessiveness, in the latter Stanley Kubrick achieved a finely balanced bland of subtle scares and exaggerated horror. The Changeling falls somewhere in between the two - neither hysterical or over the top, but also lacking the punch, drive, and energy one requires of a horror film.

The film opens with a sequence that is probably the most ambitious in the film. Peter Medak’s attempt to aim for the sort of dislocated action set piece that Brian De Palma excelled at during the 1970’s. With his car stuck in the snow and his wife and daughter merrily playing John Russell (George C. Scott) watches impotently from a telephone box as they are mowed down by an out of control truck. This immediately gives Russell all the requisite emotional baggage he requires when he moves to Seattle some months later and takes up a university post. Not only is Russell emotionally in tune to the potentialities of the spirit world he is also an artist, a great composer no less, and it is through his music that he first makes contact with a ghostly presence in the ancient gothic mansion he has rented. If it all sounds a little contrived, that’s because it is. Much criticism has been levelled at the suitability of the bullish and powerful George C. Scott for the role of a sensitive intellectual mourning the loss of his family. This is not unfair at all - he is totally miscast. Scott seems visibly uncomfortable in his sweaters and jackets, and if he isn’t looking uncomfortable he looks distracted. The problem is that Russell is just too rational and unflappable. He takes everything in his stride and is far too laid back. Even an increasingly tense and hysterical séance overflowing with psychic activity barely raises an eyebrow.

Scott is on much firmer ground when the film shifts into the mode of the detective story. So many films dealing with ghosts and spirits make this shift; in many ways they owe more to this form of storytelling than the horror genre. The horror elements here are merely a visually interesting backdrop to an increasingly complicated conspiracy of silence that has enabled Senator Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) to inherit the wealth and privilege that should have come the way of a crippled boy. Carmichael is the changeling of the title, and the ghostly visitation is that of the disabled boy who was drowned by a father too ashamed to leave his wealth and title to him. This in itself is highly disturbing and the flashback showing the boy’s death is an unexpectedly shocking and moving moment. Russell’s partner in the investigation is Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) an employee of the local historical preservation society. Van Devere provides an emotive foil to Scott’s bland response to the events. Scott does however come into this own in an excellent scene in which he confronts the Senator. The Senator’s threats and attempted blackmail confirm the ugliness of his character, but the Senator is eventually unable to live with his guilt and perishes in the ubiquitous inferno that always seems to conclude these types of films.

Much more could have been made of Russell laying to rest the memory of his family, by laying to rest the ghost that inhabits his house. An actor with a little more pathos and belief in the screenplay by William Gray and Diane Maddox may have brought these subtleties to life. From a technical perspective though The Changeling is a major accomplishment. The cinematography by John Coquillon is of his usual high standard, and the music by Rick Wilkins (especially the nursery rhyme motif that offers the first hint of a spectral presence) is haunting and beautiful. But like so many haunted house films the true plaudits have to go the sound design. The loud hammering of pipes when first heard is particularly effective. A nice touch is added by the symbolic motif of the wheelchair - a device which at one time is of use and help, but which becomes a potential murder weapon. Hungarian born director Medak has only returned to the horror genre sporadically, and although he crafted a technically proficient and tasteful film here, The Changeling is ultimately a rather hollow cinematic experience.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. This is one of those films I keep meaning to see and never quite manage to. May leave it on the back burner for a while longer now. While I'm here there's a Zombie Rabbit award with your name on it over at my blog.

  2. Yeah I'd still give it a watch, a lot of people consider it something of a minor classic. For me personally its far from it. Thanks for the Zombie Rabbit!! I'll be sure to accept one day this week.


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