Monday, June 11, 2007

#14: The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)

There is honestly not much to say about "The Changeling." It is a competent ghost story, strongly if somewhat anonymously filmed, cliched (though not destructively so), with great atmosphere and setting. It's a well-told campfire story. If you like a nice little ghost story, and I certainly do, it gets the job done. I'm a sucker for late 1960s--early 1980s American location-shot films, probably because this is what I grew up watching, but also because there is such a relaxed, unadorned encapsulation of straightforward American life in the details and physical settings of these films (no matter the plot) that is regrettably and painfully absent from recent mainstream American movies. (I hasten to add that the 1950s are probably my favorite decade for American film, narrowly beating the 1970s, but nothing beats 1966-1983 for that indefinable lived-in atmosphere I prize so much).

Movie stars in this time period looked like real people, and the extras, character actors, and bit players did, too. Even more so. Now we settle for a bunch of fucking Ashton Kutchers. And he's the name that stands out! I don't even know who the fuck anyone else is. What happened to faces that looked like ANYTHING had happened to them? What a long digression to tell you that this film was shot on location in New York City, rural upstate New York, Seattle, and Vancouver (we're not the only Americans, you know, you xenophobic fuck).

The story is about a highly regarded composer and professor of music in NYC, who, while on vacation in upstate NY, witnesses the death of his wife and young daughter in a horrific automobile accident. Recovering from the trauma, he decides to relocate to his alma mater, Seattle. Fellow professor friends hook him up with a mansion in the country, which is huge, gothic, and haunted. Oooh-wooo-ooo! Soon, a spirit is attempting to make contact. But why? George C. Scott, as the professor/composer, decides to find out. I'm a big fan of Scott's, particularly for his performance in "Dr. Strangelove" and his refusal to attend the Oscar ceremonies or accept his nominations and awards because he thought the whole thing was bullshit, but he's been criticized for this performance.

It's true, he doesn't physically move around much or wail, sob, and flip out. I guess we expect our horror movie characters to overact a bit, and it must seem odd when they don't. However, I think Scott's stoic choices are good ones. After all, a man who sees his wife and daughter smashed by a truck is not likely to run crying from a house because a ghost is in it. He's like, "Go ahead and haunt this shit, motherfucker. I've seen some scary shit, and I ain't going anywhere, cocksucker." That's a direct quote from the script. It's true? While most of us wouldn't ascend deep into the bowels of a well, alone, where a skeleton had just been found, in the dead of night, it is plausible Scott's character would. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the film was trimmed to meet a reasonable running time without much thought to logical narrative continuity. It's true I don't put a premium on logical narrative continuity, but there are some pretty nonsensical gaps in logic that reasonably hint at chunks of the film being cut away, particularly a minor character who is set up at the beginning of the film as a major one and an uncharacteristic Scott outburst that doesn't gel with the rest of the story. Cliches and narrative gaps aside, "The Changeling" is a highly entertaining, creepy ghost movie that wouldn't damage your weekend much. I realize my tepid recommendation may cause you to say, "Hey! Why would I rent this movie that you say is only mildly good? Life is short, bitch." To which I would reply, "Come on, I've already lived almost three more years than Kurt Cobain. What else are you going to do? You might even be older than me."

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