Ghost Stories: The Changeling (1980) and Ghost Story (1981)

A Look At Two Spooky Supernatural Thrillers From The Early 80s

December 14 2010 Categorized Under: Movie Reviews No Commented
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The Changeling (1980) 1/2 (out of 4)
Directed by: Peter Medak
Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh, John Colicos, Barry Morse, Madeleine Sherwood

Ghost Story (1981) 1/2 (out of 4)
Directed by: John Irvin
Starring: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, Craig Wasson, Patricia Neal, Alice Krige, Jacqueline Brookes, Miguel Fernandes, Lance Holcomb, Mark Chamberlin, Tim Choate, Kurt Johnson, Ken Olin

The Changeling - George C Scott

I always feel like, somebody's watching me.

Tragedy, guilt, and grief: these themes set the tone for a good ghost story. It begins with the tragedy – somebody dies (probably violently and unjustly), which leads to grief (of the loved ones) or guilt (of the parties that may have been responsible). This is what opens up the doorways between the worlds of the living and the dead. Certainly, the idea that the dead can come back – usually in a more powerful form – and maybe take you with them is rather unnerving, as is the concept that the afterlife may not bring peace. But a solid ghost story needs a foundation, something rooted in earthly experiences; there are two horror films from the early 80s that understand this. They also happen to star veteran actors with great talent. The Changeling, released in 1980, stars George C Scott, whom I loved in Patton and Dr. Strangelove, as well as the underrated Exorcist III. It also features Melvyn Douglas, famous for his movies with Greta Garbo but no stranger to horror (The Old Dark House, The Vampire Bat, The Tenant). Ghost Story, released the next year, would also star Douglas (his final role before his death), but look at the rest of that film’s cast: Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman. Compare and contrast these films with today’s crop of hip, youth-centered horror fare – would anybody in Hollywood want to take a chance on horror flicks with the entire main cast consisting of seasoned actors in their 80s, or even in middle age?

The Changeling - Ball

Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

The Changeling begins with the tragedy that befalls pianist and composer John Russell (Scott) when he witnesses his wife and daughter die in a car accident. Trying to put his life back together, he moves to Seattle to teach and rents an old mansion to work on his compositions. Not long after he moves in strange happenings occur – weird banging noises, faucets running by themselves, and shattering windows. Russell soon discovers a secret room in the house, featuring a music box, toys, and a wheelchair that appears made for a small child. Some detective work, with the help of Claire Norman of the Historical Preservation Society (played by Trish Van Devere, who married Scott in real life), uncovers the story of a little girl who was killed in the early 1900s. After witnessing the bizarre teleportation of his deceased daughters rubber ball, Russell brings in a medium. The seance reveals the presence of a spirit who was murdered in the house as a boy, and replaced with another child from a nearby orphanage. Clues lead John and Claire to Senator Joseph Carmichael (Douglas) who is faced with a very uncomfortable truth about his heritage and must now protect his reputation – maybe even his entire fortune.

The Changeling is a haunted house movie that gets by on atmosphere, acting, and story without resorting to explicit gore or cheap scare tactics. Hungarian director Peter Medak and cinematographer John Coquillon (the DP on a few Sam Peckinpah films) know how to use the camera – the house is explored through the use of well placed and slow moving dolly shots, push-ins, pull-backs; many times there’s a static camera capturing the players from afar in the style of a Kubrick shot. The comparisons to the superior Kubrick film of that same year – The Shining – are unavoidable, but this film is no slouch. There are scenes of Scott and Van Devere from a POV above them, as if the house itself (or the vengeful spirit within it) is constantly watching them. There are little touches that help too – the moans of a small boy during a seance, a moment of sadness as Russell cries in his bed when he remembers his family’s demise, the very idea that a member of the early 20th century bourgeoisie would kill his own child for entry into the elites’ special club, which the grieving Russell (and a melodramatic Claire) cannot comprehend. Van Devere’s over-acting notwithstanding, there’s more than a hint of anger at the aristocracy, made explicit in the movie’s indictment of Senator Carmichael (Douglas, very good here) who is the heir to a legacy built upon innocent blood.

I like to think that Russell’s desire to seek justice for the ghost is also a way for him to reach catharsis over his little girl’s death, even if the film doesn’t follow that plot strand too far. In the end, it’s a solid haunted-house flick, and I should note here that it features a scene involving a well that seems like it was ripped off by Ringu, and if the ending is a slight bit underwhelming, its general tone of loneliness, sadness and loss, its story of forgotten victims and sins of the fathers – helps make up for it. The Changeling is much better than The Amityville Horror which came out a few years before, and also better than Ghost Story, which was released a year later.

Ghost Story - Chowder Society

Funny - nobody here even likes chowder.

Ghost Story, which flaunts a cast that would have old school cinema lovers salivating – Houseman, Fairbanks Jr., Astaire, Douglas – is not a bad film, just a very uneven one. Opening, properly, with a snowy New England backdrop, the film shows Sears James (Houseman) telling a ghost story by the fireplace to the rest of his “Chowder Society”, made up of Ned Wanderley (Fairbanks, Jr.), Dr. John Jaffrey (Douglas), and Ricky Hawthorne (Astaire). Friends for years, the Chowder Society is nevertheless bounded by a dark secret; recent nightmares had by all suggest that a horrible truth is coming to the surface. In the meantime, one of Ned’s sons is killed in a horrible fall from his apartment, which brings the other son Don (Craig Wasson, from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3) back home for the funeral. The estranged father and son don’t have time to mend their relationship, as Ned falls off a bridge after being frightened by some kind of supernatural entity – a specter of a woman with a blurry appearance. After a discovery of an old photo of the group in their youth with a strange, blurry image of a woman, Don approaches the men with a story of his own. At this point, the movie changes gears and we are in Florida, as Don tells his tale of meeting a secretary named Alma Mobley (Alice Krige) and entering into an intense affair with her. But before they actually tie the knot, Alma’s behavior becomes erratic and bizarre, leading Don to break it off. Soon after, he learns that Alma has turned up in New York and is set to marry his brother; Don’s warnings about her are unheeded. The question of who Alma really is, and how she might be related to Don’s father and the rest of the Chowder society is made clear as Ricky and Sears relate their own story – something that happened 50 years earlier, a terrible secret they have been living with their entire lives.

Ghost Story makes the suggestion that it was guilt that powers the ghost along with the obvious desire for revenge over its wrongful death. Alice Krige, who would play the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact years later, shows us here why she was chosen for that part – the South African actress brings an eerie, menacing quality to her role. She’s obviously a ghost, but the film plays fast and loose with the definition of “ghost” – she’s referred to in some circles as a “revenant” – like a demon – living most of the time in corporeal form (talk about “physical” – the girl is nude for half the film), but other times she can change her appearance or even shed physical form completely. The Peter Straub novel, on which this film is based, was much more detailed about the nature of Alma (she was actually a manitou). The movie, at a running time of nearly 2 hours, still had to remove many subplots and makes changes to her character. You can tell – there are moments where the film just feels disjointed, as if there are pieces that were left on the cutting room floor. Also appearing in the film are mental patient Gregory Bate (Miguel Fernandes) and a boy named Fenny (Lance Holcomb), who torment Ricky and Don and seem to be working for the ghost. They are probably the weakest link in the movie – Ghost Story spends so much time setting up an otherworldly, supernatural, and formidable foil for us that to throw in a couple of regular miscreants as her “helpers” seems laughable – Alma is threatening enough without the distraction of what seems like hostile vagrants. Fans of the book, however, will probably recognize the pair, as they originally appeared in the story as part of a homage to The Turn of The Screw. However, whatever importance they served for the plot of the book has been horribly neutered for the movie. The flashback to the 30s is likewise another gear shift that took me out of the picture a bit; the story of the relationship between the “young” versions of the Chowder Society and their object of affection – Eva (Krige, again) – throws the tone of the film off. The behavior of the young “chowderheads” is certainly puzzling – are they more interested in Eva or each other? Are they competing for her affection or are they just trying to get Ned laid? Why is it that the young Sears (Ken Olin) turns menacing to the point that he appears ready to rape Eva? In any case, the flashback ends with a death-by-drowning that reminds me of the drowning featured in The Changeling – watery graves being essential to the plots of both films.

Ghost Story

A 50 year corpse should at least try some makeup before leaving the house.

Ghost Story‘s climax, while depicting the death of one of the major characters that is rather laughable, does use Krige to good effect; her taunting of Don is frightful because of the implications (“I will see the life run out of you….You will be [dead] too. Dead and wet and cold.”) I also couldn’t help but notice another instance of defeating the ghost by exhuming its corpse – freeing it from its unmarked grave and exposing the secrets of the past to light. In the end, what works about these types of movies is that they understand that what can be most terrifying is not necessarily ghostly manifestations or flesh rotting off skeletons (although that can be terrifying too) but the unbearable weight of memory, guilt, and loss. I find The Changeling to be a better film than Ghost Story, but both are recommended for a double feature on a cold, wintry night. After all, you’ve probably already seen The Shining a hundred times, right?

– Bill Gordon

Buy The Changeling on DVD
Buy Ghost Story on DVD

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