Leave it to the Canadians. At the very moment when American horror movies were taking an ugly turn, thanks to the ascendance of brainless slasher films, Canadian lawyer-turned-producer Garth H. Drabinsky and his collaborators made this restrained ghost story, which blends psychological terror with sharp visual jolts. The result is an enjoyably old-fashioned picture that caters to sophisticated palettes.
George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a noted classical composer who lives on the East Coast with his wife and young daughter. One terrible day, he witnesses their deaths when a truck spins out of control on an icy road and hits the family car. John relocates to Seattle for a teaching job, and he rents a vacant mansion from Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere), a representative of the local historical society. While struggling through his grief and trying to generate new music, John starts hearing and seeing apparitions throughout the rented house. (A bouncing rubber ball has never been more menacing.) Afraid he’s going insane, John enlists Claire’s help to investigate the history of the mansion, eventually discovering a decades-old mystery with tragic connections to Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), a powerful U.S senator.
Giving away more of the plot (or even the meaning of the title) would spoil the fun, but suffice to say that the storyline—credited to Russell Hunter—is about the notion that souls unable to reach their final resting places can communicate with the living. Director Peter Medak and cinematographer John Coquillon make strong visual choices throughout The Changeling, employing muscular compositions and wide lenses to emphasize the power that places have over people. Even with his bearish physique, Scott seems dwarfed by the dark hallways and endless stairwells of the mansion, and when the tortured spirits get active—causing objects to stir and noises to emanate from mysterious places—it’s easy to understand why Scott’s character feels so unnerved.
To its detriment, The Changeling suffers from a common malady, the old conundrum of “Why not just leave?” The more he becomes convinced his temporary house is haunted, the more obsessed John becomes with resolving a ghost’s unfinished business—but the filmmakers never persuasively explain why the task is so important to Russell. Similarly, the quasi-love story that develops between John and Claire feels perfunctory. Nonetheless, the best stuff in The Changeling is terrific. Rick Wilkins’ score is elegantly moody, Douglas gives an effectively twitchy supporting performance, and Medak does a great job of gradually increasing the size of the movie’s scares all the way from the slow-burn beginning to the cataclysmic finale.
The Changeling: FUNKY