Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 7: "The Changeling" by David Pretty

Greetings, All You Spirit-Seekers and Armchair Mediums!

The Changeling is a hoary old-school ghost story which represents a style of film-making that is now nearly defunct.  Can you imagine a big-budgeted, major studio film being released now that featured such deliberate pacing and a fifty-three year old actor in the lead?

Ponder that for a moment as you watch the film's creepy-ass trailer:

Well, I guess such permutations weren't such a gamble back in 1980.  Veteran actor George C. Scott plays John Russell, a music composer who loses his wife and child in a freak roadside car accident.  In a effort to distant himself from this horrible tragedy he moves out of his apartment in New York City to Seattle Washington in order to teach music at a local university.

While there he rents a spacious but inherently spooky-looking mansion after it's been abandoned for twelve years.  Initially things are fine and John slowly begins to find some peace of mind.  Unfortunately, odd things start to happen in the mansion.  He hears what sounds like someone pounding on the pipes.  Water taps start running on their own accord.  Doors begin to open and close as if by some unseen force.

Eventually John locates a secret room in the loft and discovers clues to the house's dark history that seem to implicate a powerful political clan.  Soon all hell breaks loose with creepy bathtub manifestations, disembodied voices, a rogue rubber ball, a nerve-jangling seance, a vacant but inexplicably mobile wheelchair and a götterdämmerung climax involving fire and a killer chandelier.

Make no mistake, this isn't the scariest film I've ever seen but it's certainly got it's fair share of what Buffy used to call "the wiggins".  There were at least two or three points in the movie where I felt the hackles rise on my back, but then again, I'm a sucker for "spiritual horror" films like The Shining or The Exorcist.

Unlike Paranormal Activity, The Changeling starts off with some modest anomalies and then stacks increasingly eerie stuff on top, building to a great climax.  Director Peter Medak really has my number here.  He wrings some intense scares out of his creative use of sound and his ability to show fleeting glimpses of things unexplained.  Turn out, it's also an effective little whodunit which doles out the revelations at a satisfying pace.

The performances are also top-shelf.  George C. Scott is alternately sympathetic and then relentless as he's driven to piece together the cryptic clues laid out before him.  It's as if his single-minded desire to vindicate the victim will allow him to atone for the loss of his wife and child.  Scott's real-life wife at the time, Trish Van Devere, is also empathetic and resolute as Claire Norman.  After helping John secure the house in the first place, she now feels partially responsible for his plight and determined see things through.

Supposedly the film was inspired by screenwriter Russell Hunter's real-life experiences in a similar house, which certainly accounts for the film's restraint until the final reel.  The exteriors, clearly shot in Canada, are still atmospheric and the house itself has just as much character as John and Claire do.

All told, this is is creepy little flick.  Current horror films would be well-advised to steal a few moves from its playbook and then update them for modern sensibilities.

  Tilt: up.

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