The Changeling (1980)

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*. There’s a now standard and widely accepted view of recent film history that has it that the late 1970s marked a watershed in terms of audience. With the success of Jaws and Star Wars the industry became geared, almost exclusively, to summer blockbuster popcorn movies for teenagers. The adult audience disappeared. The only demographic that mattered was 17 to 24-year-olds.
*. Genre pictures responded in the same way. It’s no coincidence that this same period, post Halloween, saw the rise of the slasher film, or “dead teenager” movie. In the early 1980s these movies took over. A horror movie was, almost by definition, a slasher movie.
*. I say all this just to emphasize how much of an outlier this film was at the time. There’s George C. Scott, just in his early 50s but looking ten years older, huffing and puffing through the snow as he pushes his station wagon down the road. He’s the hero. And there isn’t a teen in sight.
*. There’s no psycho killer wearing black gloves, stalking girls POV-style as they take showers or go skinny dipping. There are no gory kills. In fact, there’s little violence at all. It’s just an old-fashioned haunted house story, with a mature cast.
*. A note on phone booths. Unless you’re of a certain age you may have no familiarity with them. Here’s one thing: they weren’t often located by remote roadsides. There’d be a phone at a gas station or rest stop, but not in the middle of nowhere. As there is here.
*. A note on hot water home heating systems. You may have no familiarity with them either. They were noisy. Really, really noisy. I remember the slamming, pounding in the pipes being forceful enough to knock books off of shelves. So I wonder why John Russell gets so perturbed by the regular pounding he hears in the old house. Obviously it’s just a problem with the heating. Annoying as hell, but not spooky.
*. It serves him right. What on earth is he doing moving in to such a giant mansion for anyway? He’s one guy! The house is so damn big they couldn’t even find a location for it and so the exteriors are all of a false façade.
*. I mentioned that this is an old-fashioned haunted house movie, and one thing that means is that it’s a movie that seems overwritten, if not downright literary. Haunted houses are the stuff of Gothic romance, of books, and of writers like M. R. James, Shirley Jackson and Robert Aickman.
*. This can get you into trouble in a movie, and I think it does a bit here. The back story has too much going on. I wasn’t quite sure about the legal business behind the murder and the will. And the medals, while full of personal significance, are of little evidentiary value as a clue to what happened in the past. So why is the senator so worked up over them?
*. The moral of the story is also muddy. What did Senator Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) do that was so bad? Sure he was the beneficiary of his adopted father’s evil scheme, but there’s no indication that he was party to it. I guess he’s just guilty of the cover-up.
*. Screenwriter William Gray would dumb things down considerably for his next credit, Prom Night.
*. Now really, what is that wheelchair going to do to Claire? Run her down? Bang her in the shins? I would say push her downstairs, but she does that on her own.
*. Ringu obviously borrowed a lot from this film, and Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black, acknowledged a debt.
*. I think Peter Medak does a decent job handling the suspense. He’s a little too attached to overhead shots, but to some extent that comes with the territory. Richard Schickel remarked that such high angles “prove nothing except that they just don’t build 12-foot high ceilings anymore.”
*. The ending is baffling. Or at least I find it so. Has Senator Carmichael astral-projected to the house? Why bother with any of this (that is, Russell seeing his “illusion” climbing the burning staircase)? I don’t see how it’s necessary, and it just ends up being confusing.
*. I still think this a pretty effective ghost story, complete with the spooky nineteenth-century charm of its faux mansion and séances. I just don’t think the story has enough juice though to keep turning the screw. Some of that is, unfortunately, due to the star. It’s just scarier watching teenagers being chased around in their underwear than to see old men being awakened at 6 a.m. to the sound of clanging heating pipes.

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