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The Changeling

1980, Starring George C Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, John Calicos, Jean Marsh. Directed by Peter Medak.

After watching his family die in a truck accident, John Russel (Scott) decides to move to Seattle to teach music at the university. He rents a very large mansion to "be alone for awhile." It isn't long before ghostly things begin to happen: the water pipes bang every morning at 6:00 am, the piano plays notes by itself and doors open and close for no reason. One night John returns home to find the bathtub filling up with water. As he stops it, he sees a brief apparition of someone under the water. His suspicions are further aroused when he opens a locked door to reveal a dusty old room containing a child's notebook and a small wooden wheelchair. He starts inquiring about the disturbing occurrences to Claire Norman, a woman from the local historical society and together they research the house's past. When John discovers that the daughter of a previous owner was run over and killed by a coal truck, he feels that the spirit is trying to communicate with him.

With the help of the University's Psychic department (?!), John sets up a séance with an expert medium. She asks questions, and the spirit guides her hand to write the answers. John also tapes the sessions with his reel-to-reel. It is discovered that the entity is not the young girl, but in fact a boy named Joseph Carmichael. Not much else is revealed until John plays back the tape and hears a ghostly voice whisper answers to his questions. John listens and through flashbacks the audience sees how a young boy was drowned in the tub by his father.

After a little more research, John makes a connection with the current Senator, whose name happens to be Joe Carmichael. He finds Joe's father's ranch, and gets permission to dig under the floor of the house to uncover a lost well. After digging, John finds small skeletal remains and a medallion that says "Joseph Carmichael."

Finally, John confronts the Senator with his theory- that Joe's father was going to inherit the ranch on Joe's 21st birthday, but Joe was a very sick boy. To ensure he got the land, his father killed the original Joseph Carmichael and replaced him with a boy from the orphanage, whom he passed off as his son. The Senator, thus, is the orphan the changeling. At first, the Senator doesn't believe it, since he was so young at the time, but finally accepts his past. He visits the house to make amends with his ghostly brother as the house begins to erupt into flames.

The Changeling is a case of style over substance. It's a pretty effective ghost story with a pretty average premise. What works is Medak's camera work. The camera slowly tracks everywhere through the house. There are no quick cuts for quick scares, but instead prolonged sweeps that build up tension slowly. The séance sequence, arguably the best in the film, is a prime example of how Medak manages to combine tracking, editing and sound to create a genuinely scary atmosphere without resorting to MTV-style camera tricks. And he was rewarded greatly for this- the film picked up 7 Genies for sound, cinematography and best picture.

Canadians love ghost stories, and that may be just one reason why the Academy gushed all over this film. Just go to the occult section of a Canadian bookstore for hundreds of books about haunted houses in every province. When watching this film, you have to remember that Poltergeist and the whole Hollywood ghost-film revival was still a couple years off. The late 70's/early 80's was instead the age of Jaws and other retro 50's giant monsters. To make a relatively stylish ghost story with no gore but genuine scares puts this film a little ahead of it's time.

Medak is a Hungarian born director who made several off-beat films in Britain before trying The Changeling, which he considered his stab at commercial film. Mostly shot in Vancouver, The Changeling really features no Canadian stars or recognizable locations (at least for me). Medak has tried here to make a fairly literate film that does not pander to it's audience as many Hollywood epics do. Proof of this comes from filling the movie with a highbrow look- classical music, University buildings and dark oak furniture. This film is a favourite for some, and is worth a look for Canadian film fans.

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