Thursday, October 18, 2012

30 Days of Fright - 17: The Changeling

I would like someday to live in a big mansion style house, somewhere with lots of rooms that can each be dedicated to a specific task, like a music room, computer room, gaming room, maybe a little cinema, and so on. Considering how so many older house often have a spooky aspect to them it might be nice to have a room dedicated to seances, so when the local ghost hunting types turn up (usually around Hallowe'en) I could have a room all ready for them, nice and far away from the non-lunatics.

The Changeling starts off in late November in upstate New York, where a family on vacation are having car trouble and we meet John Russell (George C. Scott who you might know from Patton) and his wife and daughter pushing their car through the snow to get to a phone. While on the phone trying to get help, Russell witnesses the death of his wife and daughter in a freak traffic accident involving a truck skidding on the icy road.

Some months later Russell, an accomplished composer, packs up his home in New York and moves to Seattle to start teaching at the university there. He moves into an old Victorian mansion maintained by the local historical society and gets down to work and coming to terms with his tragic loss. The house is old and hasn't been lived in for ages so it's no shock to anyone that there are the occasional odd noises about the place. However, the noises grow in intensity and objects begin to move of their own accord to the point where Russell can't ignore it.

He investigates the house and learns some of its past including its previous owners as well as discovering some rooms that haven't been entered in nearly a century. One of the rooms seems to have belonged to a child and in there he uncovers a music box that plays a tune he had composed himself. Russell decides that there is something supernatural going on and he seeks help. A seance is held and a medium reveals that there is something unsettled, inhuman, and lurking in the house...

Russell knew that an old house can be hard to heat

The Chageling is a spooky film. The settings, the people, and the story are just plain spooky, though the story is an example of a tale that anyone who's seen a horror film in the past thirty years is very familiar with. The key to that eerieness has to be the quiet, understated manner in which the story unfolds and how the settings are used. The house for example is perfect for the film; old in a Victorian style and just rambling enough that it's impossible to know what's going on in every part of it at any one time, it manages to give the creeps without even trying.

Scott's performance as Russell in The Changeling is remarkable. In the early stages of the film he goes from happy family man to grieving father and husband with an honest depth that makes you really feel for him. The scene where he's explaining the grieving process to his friends in Seattle is a particular triumph and displays his talent incredibly well. Once the activities in the house kick off you can see how and why he throws himself into getting to the bottom of the mystery as an obvious distraction to the pain he carries with him. All the while everything feels restrained, like Russell is normally the type to bottle up emotion and really only expresses himself through his music, which is how I imagine a lot of great artists and musicians must really be like.

The only failing with the film is in how the story shifts in emphasis from ghostly horror to a less supernatural mystery in the last third. All the effort expanded in creating such a wonderful atmosphere is glossed over once Russell starts to confront people with the things he knows. This is salvaged somewhat near the end but at that point the mood is gone. Regardless of this, The Changeling seems to have been the inspiration behind a lot of horror films that came after it, with the likes of The Ring heavily inspired by many of the concepts present, giving The Changeling a far-reaching legacy that is to be admired.

One Thumb Up and One Thumb Down for The Changeling.

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