Sunday 22 November 2009

The Changeling (1980)

Director: Peter Medak
Stars: George C Scott and Trish Van Devere
Recently Martin Scorsese created for The Daily Beast a list of what he deemed the scariest eleven horror films of all time. I've seen eight of them and can't find fault with a single inclusion. This is one of the three I haven't seen and it's probably the most obscure title on the entire list. It's a Canadian ghost story set mostly in Seattle and made in 1980 by Peter Medak, a Hungarian ex-pat who works mostly in the UK. It's a powerful story, that builds slowly but surely and doesn't just concern itself with a ghost story but a political scandal to boot. It's cleverly written, sourced from a real case in Denver by Russell Hunter and adapted to the screen by William Gray and Diana Maddox. It also stars a real life married couple, George C Scott and Trish Van Devere.

Scott is a concert pianist and distinguished composer called John Russell, but more importantly he's a grieving husband and father: the opening scenes in upstate New York see his wife Joanna and daughter Kathy killed before his eyes in a tragic accident. He packs up and moves to Seattle, to teach at his old university, and he rents a vast old place called the Chessman House from the local historical preservation society. It's far too big for one man, though I'd buy it for a dollar any day, but there are presumably forces at work that chose him for the place. It seems to be the fresh start he needs: a spacious place to relax and compose and come to terms with his loss, as well as a series of lectures that are massively attended because of his presence.

But then this is a ghost story, so you can imagine what comes next. Piano keys depress when he leaves the room. There's half a minute of rhythmic pounding at precisely six o'clock every morning. Doors open on their own, just like our kitchen door used to do back in England. We used to blame Fred, our imaginary ghost, but Russell has to contend with the real thing. One day as he leaves the house, a window breaks out at him from high up in a garret, which leads him to a room that's been boarded up and blocked off from the rest of the house, something that all these phenomena seem to be pointing him towards. There he finds a music box whose tune matches precisely the piece he began composing the day he arrived. The notebook on the desk is dated 1909, written in a child's hand and there's a very small wheelchair there too.

Russell and Claire Norman, the historical society agent, investigate and quickly find that Cora Barnard, the seven year old daughter of Dr Barnard, who lived in the Chessman House at that time, was killed by a passing coal cart in 1909. The connections to Russell are obvious, though we are never told precisely how old Kathy Russell was, but they're also misleading. The real story is darker and more mysterious and we have 107 taut minutes for it to unfold and explain just why someone is trying to reach out from beyond the grave, what their purpose is and how far that purpose will stretch. Fortunately for us, it's a well written and well shot film, with many memorable moments, some of which are iconic and definitive.

Russell has kept little of his family's stuff, perhaps in an attempt at closure, but he's kept his daughter's ball as a keepsake. While it's safely locked in a desk it nonetheless comes bouncing down the stairs past his doorway for him to see. After he throws it into the river and returns home to find it bouncing down the stairs again towards him, still wet from the water, he calls in a medium called Leah Harmon. The ensuing seance, with Helen Burns as the medium, is one of the most gripping and believable such scenes I've ever seen, free of all the usual gimmickry you might expect. Another subtly powerful scene is when Russell outlines the strange phenomena he's been experiencing to Claire Norman at the historical society and one of her more experienced colleagues, Minnie Huxley walks out to explain that there's been a mistake, that the house should never have been rented, that nobody should live there, that nobody has been able to live there. Almost definitively, she says, 'The house doesn't want people.'

The cast is solid but low key. George C Scott looks a little battered and a little dishevelled, as indeed he probably should given that he's mourning the loss of his wife and child. He gives a strong performance, as does his wife Trish Van Devere as the historical society agent Claire Norman, though she's obviously not the acting talent her husband is. She only made thirteen movies, but five were with her husband. Helen Burns stands out among the supporting cast for her performance as Leah Harmon, the medium, stunning for its sheer matter-of-factness. John Colicos and Barry Morse have solid but very brief appearances, but the real supporting name to mention is Melvyn Douglas as Joseph Carmichael, a 36 year senator whose family owned the Chessman House and who are inextricably entwined in its story.

Douglas was unrecognisable to me as Carmichael. Admittedly I last saw him in 1932's The Old Dark House, almost a half century adrift from this one, but I've seen plenty of his other films too so have more than got used to his face. Perhaps it's because the most recent film I've seen him in prior to this one was 1948's Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, still over three decades before The Changeling. Strangely while I know him best from his heyday in the thirties and forties, his awards came later in his career, including two Oscars as a Best Supporting Actor and one nomination as Best Actor, the last of these being as late as Being There in 1979. He was never even nominated back in the golden age of Hollywood when he filled parts as memorable as the one in Ninotchka where he got to be the actor that made Greta Garbo laugh.

The Changeling connects to his real life in two ways worth commenting on: the character he plays and the subject matter used. Douglas never retired from the screen, continuing to make movies throughout his life, but he was greylisted during the anti-Communist hysteria of the fifties. In 1950 his wife, who had already been elected to Congress, ran for the Senate as a Democrat, but lost to Republican Richard Nixon who lived up to his Tricky Dick nickname by cleverly wielding the pinko card. Her husband, who had been politically active on the anti-Communist left for a couple of decades, was tarred by the same brush and so didn't act again for another eleven years until 1962's Billy Budd. The Changeling came during the three year stretch before his death in 1981, in which he made two films a year and his last film was another ghost story, one called simply Ghost Story from Peter Straub's novel, which was also the last film of Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. I really need to find that one but I doubt it'll be as good as this.

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