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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Retro Review: The Changeling

Much has been made on here of movies like The Return of the Living Dead and The Exorcist, which played big parts in making me a horror fan. But I don't think I've done enough justice to this picture, and I'm about to remedy that. The Changeling was, without a doubt, one of the most soul-numbingly terrifying movies of my entire childhood, and it has stayed with me ever since.

For my money, this flick ranks right up there with the likes of The Uninvited and The Haunting as one of the truly classic ghost movies. With amazing restraint--as all the best ghost movies demonstrate--The Changeling proves that when it comes to haunted terrors, less is always more.

The great George C. Scott, one of my favorite actors of all time, plays composer John Russell, who takes refuge in an old Victorian mansion after his family is tragically killed in a car accident. While there, he comes into unwitting contact with the spirit of a murdered child, who reaches out to him to try and solve the mystery of his death.

It goes without saying that Scott is magnificent. This man was truly an acting Goliath, and the world is a lesser place without him. As Russell, he puts forth just the right combination of pathos, fear and outrage to really make his character work. We're with him the whole way, experiencing every terror that he does, in every detail.

Director Peter Medak is known more for his work in television, but still, what a formidable TV resume it is: Space 1999, the '80s Twilight Zone, Shelly Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre (the best!), Beauty and the Beast, Tales from the Crypt, Kindred: The Embraced, The Wire, Carnivale, Masters of Horror. He also did the underrated early Gary Oldman flick, Romeo Is Bleeding. Plus, the script for The Changeling is by William Gray, screenwriter of the original Prom Night!

There is some imagery in the movie that has remained with me for the nearly three decades since I first saw it. That may be simply because I was so young, but I tend to think this movie would've affected profoundly no matter my age. The empty wheelchair; the ball bouncing down the stairs; and most mind-scarringly of all, that repeated shot of the little boy's face underwater in the bathtub. Talk about Kindertrauma! I can't tell you how deeply that messed me up as a kid--phobia of baths ever since!

The greatest thing about The Changeling is that it manages to get under your skin without a single drop of blood, no real special effects to speak of, no over-the-top gimmickry. I'm not saying I have anything against these things--actually, I love them all. But it's also nice to experience a horror movie that doesn't necessarily have to rely on all that for scares. It's a welcome change of pace. What can I tell you, I'll always be a sucker for a good ol' fashioned gothic tale...

It should be mentioned also that the great old-time actor Melvyn Douglas appears in this, in one of his last roles. Douglas starred in The Old Dark House (yeah, he's that old), The Vampire Bat, Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka with Greta Garbo, Hud and so many others. The man was a bona fide Hollywood legend, and incidentally, his last role would come one year later in another terrific ghost movie, the aptly titled Ghost Story. If you haven't seen his Oscar-winning performance in Being There with Peter Sellers, treat yourself immediately. The man is gold.

But make no mistake, this is George C. Scott's movie. This guy is such a gem, and I've always worshiped him for performances in movies like Anatomy of a Murder, The Exorcist III, The Hindenburg, and of course his transcendent turn in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove as the war-mongering Gen. Buck Turgidson. But, it goes without saying, that for me, he'll always be best identified with the real-life general he played in his greatest role ever, George S. Patton. Scott doesn't quite get to flex his chops as much in The Changeling as in some of these other flicks, but it's interesting to see him in a more subdued part anyway.

The Changeling is one of those excellent horror movies that doesn't usually get the level of attention it deserves. So I'm saying it right here and now--do yourself a favor and rent it if you have never seen it. And if you have, rent it again. Either way, you're guaranteed two hours of sublime spookiness.


Sam Charles Norton said...

Amen! One of my all-time favourites.

Martin said...

Wow, good call, really great movie. And don't forget to mention Scott's turn as Burt Gordon in The Hustler. Almost every movie made could have been improved by putting George C. Scott in it.

Unknown said...

One of my friends had to sleep with the light on for a week after seeing this one.

Fred [The Wolf] said...

This is a fantastic flick. One of the best ghost movies ever made. George C. Scott is great in this one. I'm glad someone is giving THE CHANGELING the respect and exposure that it deserves.

B-Sol said...

I'm glad to see the love that The Changeling is getting here. I know it wasn't just me that was blown away by this film!

jim said...

I agree wholeheartedly. It's really shows the less is more well. The truly scary aspect comes from what is implied, not necessarily what is shown. I rack this one along side another very good haunted house film, 'Legend of Hell House. It, too, understands that less is more.

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