Thursday, October 18, 2018

George C. Scott Unravels the Mystery of "The Changeling"

George C. Scott as John Russell.
When we recently asked our Twitter followers to name their favorite scary movie, several responded with an unexpected choice: The Changeling (1980). Since October evenings are a fine time for ghost stories, we took an opportunity to watch this atmospheric tale about buried secrets and restless souls (which we found on YouTube).

George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a composer whose world has been shattered by the accidental deaths of his wife and young daughter. Russell accept a position to teach music at his alma mater in Seattle, where he rents a large historic home. The house has been vacant for twelve years (which is never a good sign in a horror movie).

A house of secrets, nestled in the woods.
Almost immediately, John begins to hear unusual pounding sounds and fleeting whispers. But it's the sudden shattering of a fourth floor window that leads him to a closet that conceals a shuttered door. Behind the door is a staircase to a small child's room, where John finds a manuscript from 1909 and a still-functioning music box. The music box's melody is the same as John's latest composition.

Like all good ghost movies, The Changeling is essentially a mystery in which John tries to learn the identity of the house's resident spirit and what it wants. The former question is answered in the film's finest scene: a seance in which the medium (well played by Roberta Maxwell) asks questions in an emotionless voice while madly scribbling the ghost's answers on paper.

Trish Van Devere.
Much of the film's effectiveness is derived by its atmospheric settings: the isolated snowy highway where John loses his family; the rainy NYC streets and his empty apartment; and, of course, the haunted estate and its muted-green woods. The house itself is almost a character, with director Peter Medak embracing the long staircase, the overly spacious chambers, and the dark, dreary child's room. Medak employs frequent high-angle shots to give the impression of a child hiding on the stairs, watching and listening to the adults below.

George C. Scott, looking older than his 53 years, is quietly effective as the "detective" that unravels the house's mystery and, in doing so, digs himself out of his own depression. I love that the script pairs John with an attractive history society volunteer (played by Trish Van Devere, aka Mrs. Scott), but never muddies the story with a romance. That would have detracted from the central stories of an ultimate deception and coping with grief.

Henry Treat Rogers house in Denver.
Russell Hunter, who wrote the screen story for The Changeling, claims the plot was inspired by his real-life experiences while living in the Henry Treat Rogers house in Denver in the 1960s. In a 1980 article in Denver Magazine, Russell writes about unusual sounds, a stairway leading to the house's third floor where he found a child’s trunk, and a seance. While others have debunked parts of Hunter's tale, it still makes for a memorable backstory.

When Martin Scorsese named his picks for the 11 Scariest Movies of All Time, The Changeling came in at No. 6. Personally, I wouldn't rank it in my Top 25--I just didn't find it all that scary. Still, it's a well-directed, well-acted film that unravels effectively as it reveals what the title really means (hint: it's not a supernatural creature). And The Changeling turned out to be a perfect choice for an October evening as we count down to Halloween.


Caftan Woman said...

Well, I got goosebumps reading this. My plans for "Dialysis Day Matinee Theatre" may have just changed.

Mike Doran said...

Time to Pick The Nits:

The director is Peter Medak, Hungarian by birth, who's been bouncing back and forth between the US and the UK - and between features and TV -since the late '70s.
Check IMDb for a list of credits that continues to grow right up to the present day.

Silver Screenings said...

I'm not surprised "The Changeling" scored so well in your Twitter poll. A lot of people still write about this film, and do so in glowing terms. I've not yet seen it, but you make a good case for checking it out. :)

toto2 said...

This is a film with a palpable atmosphere. I think you expressed it well when you described the house itself as almost a character.