Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Changeling (1980)

Director: Peter Medak                                      Writers: William Gray & Diana Maddox
Film Score: Rick Wilkins                                   Cinematography: John Coquillon
Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas and Ruth Springford

The Changeling is easily the best ghost story every committed to film. It’s just so damn scary it’s ridiculous. I’m sure that jaded slasher film watchers will wonder what all the fuss is about, but they’re the ones who are missing out and I feel bad for them. Once disbelief is suspended this film is a fright fest precisely because it has no monsters, no demonic possessions, no decapitations, and no walking corpses. Instead, an immense respect for traditional ghost story tropes is demonstrated before the film makes them its own and brings the story to an incredibly satisfying climax. The film is a Canadian production, and though it received mixed reviews on its release, it also took home a slew of Genie awards, Canada’s answer to the Oscars. The story was based on the experiences of playwright and composer Russell Hunter, who apparently lived through something similar in Denver, Colorado, and was then adapted for the screen by William Gray and Diana Maddox. The film is set in Seattle, which is also great because the rainy skies and gloomy atmosphere really add to the overall effect. But as with so many of these productions--Stake Out comes to mind--other than local landmarks like the Rainier Tower and the University of Washington, most of the exteriors were filmed in Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia, including the haunted house itself. Even the Flatiron Building in Vancouver is substituted for the old Triangle Hotel in Pioneer Square.

The film opens on a two-lane highway in upstate New York, the hills and the road covered with snow at the end of November where George C. Scott’s station wagon has broken down. While he calls for help, a dump truck appears on the horizon. His wife and daughter are playing in the snow in front of the car so the truck driver can’t see them, and when a car skids out in front of him he smashes into the rear of the station wagon, killing Scott’s family. Some weeks later, Scott is seen walking through the streets of New York, credits rolling over him and Rick Wilkins’ appropriately piano-based score underneath. Back at his empty apartment he prepares to leave for Seattle, and his little girl’s small, red and white ball goes with him. Scott is a composer, and has a job teaching at the University of Washington. He meets with Trish Van Devere of the historical preservation society, and she rents him an old Victorian house in the suburbs, one with a piano--one note on which won’t play. The first supernatural element happens when Scott leaves the room and the note plays by itself. At a concert of Scott’s works later, the audience is also introduced to senator Melvin Douglas. Then one morning Scott is awakened by a loud banging noise that reverberates through the entire house. Later, while composing, a sort of lullaby keeps going through his head and he plays with the idea on the piano and records it onto a reel-to-reel tape deck. Again, the next morning, the pounding awakens him.

When Scott hears another noise, water running, and more strange sounds that seem to be coming from the third floor, he then sees a vision of a dead boy in a bathtub. When he goes to Van Devere at her office he’s accosted by Ruth Springford, who tells him the place is haunted. After a window above the third floor seems to break on its own, that’s when Scott has had enough and begins investigating. But the more he uncovers, the more the supernatural events intensify, with some sort of entity pushing Scott to finally discover the truth about what went on in that house. The film is just a masterful example of gradually bringing the viewer--along with Scott--into the mystery of the house. And the way he undergoes the investigation is remarkable. But the absolute best thing about George C. Scott’s performance is that he’s never scared. He’s never really frightened, though he is overcome by the emotion of his discovery and the existence of the supernatural. For some reason, that makes what is happening even scarier because there’s no catharsis. The audience is left to deal with their fear on their own, and it’s a brilliant narrative strategy. Trish Ven Devere is a lovely presence in the film, and acts as Scott’s sidekick throughout, just as interested in discovering the mystery as he is--despite Springford’s warning--while Melvin Douglas gives a terrific performance as the aged Senator from a wealthy family who, as it turns out, is central to the plot. Finally, a host of little known Canadian supporting actors round out the cast, providing through their relative anonymity very little distraction from the story itself.

The cinematography is beautifully atmospheric, and the film benefits tremendously from Peter Medak’s unhurried direction. John Coquillon’s camera floats in and out of rooms, occasionally finding itself up above them, looking through a fisheye lens, and always seems to generate emotional tension with visuals that replicate those very same feelings. It’s a remarkable technique. The screenplay is terrific as well, with wonderfully subtle lines, like when the handyman interrupts Scott at the piano playing a piece of sheet music. He says, “I’m sorry to disturb your composing,” and Scott answers, “That’s all right, this one’s already been composed.” And when dealing with the ghost, Scott asks all the right questions, makes all the right observations, and always behaves in a logical and believable manner. The pace of the story is perfection, ratcheting up the tension slightly with every new discovery as the supernatural elements become increasingly more frightening. About the only questionable aspect to the entire film is the role played by Ruth Springford, a sort of modern Mrs. Danvers who attempts to inject an artificial element of fear into a story that really doesn’t need it. Rick Wilkins’ score is the crowning touch, the perfect blend of soft, classical underscore with an unexpected haunting dissonance when the story calls for it. The Changeling is one of the great ghost stories of all time, and its reputation has only grown over the decades. It gets my highest recommendation.

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