The Changeling – 1980
Director Peter Medak
Starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, John Colicos, Jean Marsh, Helen Burns, Madeleine Sherwood
Screenplay Russell Hunter, William Gray, Diana Maddox
It’s hard for me to picture George C. Scott as a happy man. While I am sure many could agree with me on this sentiment, our reasons may differ. My mind’s eye has forever been affected by his haunted portrayal as John Russell, a composer who loses his family, moves across the country to escape, and then finds himself in the home of an entity captured in time. The story itself is not all that unusual. There have been many stories about the unrequited dead before and since. The success of this story is in the deep-set and sad eyes of Scott himself. His countenance gives credibility to the sorrow and does not give easily into fear.
The Changeling goes through motions that many other films have gone through. There are a series of increasingly obvious auditory hints, followed by some more visceral sights. Questions are asked and people brought in when necessary.
Melvyn Douglas, in a role reminiscent to his is perfectly cast as a benevolent politician who has much to lose. The interesting thing about his character is that he really is not what you would expect an old, powerful thing to be: guilty. It’s something different.
Trish Van Devere is a typically frantic (for the time) and occasionally helpful love interest who helps Russell find the house, and then deconstruct what happened. Her best scene is one a classic. Whilst in the midst of sobbing hysterically at Russell to stop describing what he’s finding out because of her shame of it, she stops mid-scream. What she sees is simple, and not so scary. What makes it so effectively frightening is Medak’s framing of the scene.
There is an even more resonant scene earlier on in the film, involving a ball that was his daughter’s that he’d brought with him, then packed away. The set up is subtle and It’s a wordless sequence in which we see Scott’s skepticism wearily and warily move into belief. Never has a ball bouncing down the stairs been more terrifying.
That’s the thing about Scott. He always seems exhausted emotionally, like he has nothing more to give. That feeling even turns into a rage, as he even gets to the point where he calls the entity a “son of a bitch,” demanding to know what it is the house wants from him. It’s classic Scott. Sorrow mixed with fear mixed with a rage. No one else ever did it that way: a true original.
Using Scott ever so effectively, along with some good framework, a moving piano score and an adequately sparse mansion, Medak creates a mood that lingers well beyond its running time. Martin Scorsese even lists it as one of the scariest films he’s ever seen. If you are looking to be moved by fear, dread and longing, rather than gore, this is a film to experience.
(****1/2 out of *****)