Saturday 25 April 2015

Movie Review: The Changeling (1980)

An old-fashioned haunted house horror film, The Changeling finds the right balance between mystery and chills in the story of a grieving man moving into a long-vacant estate.

In upstate New York, music composer John Russell (George C, Scott) loses his wife and daughter in a freak car accident on an icy road. After a period of grieving he accepts a university teaching position and relocates to Washington State. Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) of the local heritage house society helps John to find and move into a Victorian-era mansion that used to belong to the Carmichael family. John also meets Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), a benefactor of the heritage society and one of the most powerful men in the state.

It does not take long for things to start going bump in the night. John encounters loud banging noises, doors that mysteriously open and close, and glass that suddenly shatters. He explores the house and finds a long closed-off cobweb-filled upper room, with a child's old wheelchair and a bathtub. John and Claire delve into archival records and find clues suggesting that back in the early 1900s, a child may have been murdered by his father at the Carmichael mansion.

A Canadian co-production directed by Peter Medak, The Changeling builds up a steady sense of trepidation.The film starts on a dour note with the car crash destroying John's family, and placing him in an emotionally vulnerable state. From there Medak steers the narrative into ever darkening physical and emotional corners, and John has to confront his own loss to help solve the mystery of a young murder victim.

An atmosphere of mounting dread is maintained throughout, helped enormously by an evocative piano-driven music score by Rick Wilkins, pregnant with the promise of bad things about to happen. The film is punctuated with memorable, scary scenes, none more so that one of the most chilling seances put to film. Medak conjures up a truly eerie intervention with a clairvoyant who connects with the dead in a terrorizing trance while scribbling furiously, and then ups the spookiness factor by capturing ghostly vocals on the tape used by John to record the event.

In other scenes, a child's small red ball and an empty wheelchair are deployed to bloodcurdling effect, and there are plenty of traditional what's-behind-this-door! jumpy moments, enhanced by limited light, striking shadows and the dreariness of the Northwest.

George C. Scott adds considerable weight to the proceedings, and creates in John Russell a victim and a sympathetic father with the courage to explore rather than flee. His sturdy presence is an equal match to the agony residing in the old Carmichael house.

The Changeling uses old tried and tested horror ingredients, but nevertheless creates an effectively haunting experience.

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