Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Film Review: THE CHANGELING (1980, Peter Medak)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 107 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Written by William Gray (PROM NIGHT– WHUTTTTT?!). Starring George C. Scott (PATTON, FIRESTARTER, PETULIA), Trish Van Devere (THE LANDLORD, MOVIE MOVIE), Melvyn Douglas (two-time Oscar winner, HUD, BILLY BUDD, NINOTCHKA, THE OLD DARK HOUSE), Jean Marsh (the evil Queen in WILLOW, FRENZY, CLEOPATRA).

Tag-line: "..an experience beyond total fear."
Best one-liner: "That house is not fit to live in. No one's been able to live in it. It doesn't want people."

For the uninitiated, it must be said that the less you know about THE CHANGELING, the better, so I'll avoid revealing anything about the plot. Somehow the median point between Nicolas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW and the turn-of-the-century ghost stories of M.R. James, THE CHANGELING is a sheer force of atmospheric dread. Director Peter Medak is a master of effectively using space, foreboding architecture, and ornate interior design– as well as the roaming camera which captures them.

In THE RULING CLASS (1972), he nearly turned the expansive Gurney estate into a character- an object of desire for some, and a turgid reminder of a centuries-old oligarchy to others. While it was not a 'horror' film in the purest sense, I feel as if Medak learned much back then, and merely had to subtly tweak his techniques in order to create a seriously sinister mood.

The score, by Rick Wilkins, is hauntingly evocative, consisting of ever-flowing, swirling piano, surging and eddying like sudden rushes of air or a gentle, ghostly breaths. The cast is phenomenal: George C. Scott's stoic melancholy, Melvyn Douglas' tortured countenance, and Trish Van Devere's harried energy go a long way toward establishing the atmosphere.

THE CHANGELING belongs to the genre which I call 'melancholy horror,' consisting of films like CASTLE FREAK or DEAD & BURIED. It's almost as if a shroud lies draped upon the film- a defeated sigh, a pensive look, a sense of loss. But make no mistake, this film is SCARY. Medak portrays the supernatural in a manner that, for me, is unmatched: to feel the otherworldly as an ominous presence that lingers just outside the frame- Kubrick does it in THE SHINING, Alan Parker does it in ANGEL HEART, Lynch does it in TWIN PEAKS, and Medak does it here.

He doesn't have to rely on cheap 'sudden loud noise' scares, he builds a genuine sense of foreboding from the ground up, and takes the material very seriously. Without this film, there would be no RINGU (or, consequently, THE RING), THE OTHERS, or even THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. It's one of the great ghost stories, unsullied by time, and as long as we fear the unknown, this film will continue to resonate. Five stars.

-Sean Gill

2009 Halloween Countdown

31. PROM NIGHT (1980, Paul Lynch)
30. PHENOMENA (1985, Dario Argento)
29. HOUSE OF WAX (1953, André de Toth)
28. SILENT RAGE (1982, Michael Miller)
27. BASKET CASE (1982, Frank Henenlotter)
26. THE DEADLY SPAWN (1983, Douglas McKeown)
25. PELTS (2006, Dario Argento)
24. ANGEL HEART (1987, Alan Parker)
23. KILLER WORKOUT (1986, David A. Prior)
22. FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE (1991, Rachel Talalay)
21. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971, Robert Fuest)
20. FRANKENHOOKER (1990, Frank Henenlotter)
19. HELLRAISER (1987, Clive Barker)
18. GEEK MAGGOT BINGO (1983, Nick Zedd)
17. ALLIGATOR (1980, Lewis Teague)
16. LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971, Lucio Fulci)
15. THE CARD PLAYER (2004, Dario Argento)
14. SPASMO (1974, Umberto Lenzi)
13. C.H.U.D. (1984, Douglas Cheek)
12. FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III (1982, Steve Miner)
11. SWAMP THING (1982, Wes Craven)
10. DIARY OF THE DEAD (2008, George A. Romero)
9. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988, Ken Russell)
8. PIECES (1982, Juan Piquer Simón)
7. THE NEW YORK RIPPER (1982, Lucio Fulci)
6. MOTHER OF TEARS (2008, Dario Argento)
5. THE CHANGELING (1980, Peter Medak)

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