Monday, September 24, 2012

The Changeling (1980)

If there is one thing I love, it’s a good scare. And I don’t mean one of those random jolts in a film that causes you to jump out of your seat and have your heart beat a million miles a second. I’m talking about a scare that lingers with you, that gets under your skin and stays with you as the lights go out when you go to bed. Those scares that stay with you for days, the ones that make you ponder and think. I can tell you that it does not happen to me very often. It could be that I’ve seen so many horror films that I’ve been desensitized to feeling anything once the end credits roll. It could be that deep inside of my mind, I’ve surrendered to the idea that I’ve finally dominated the skill of knowing how to watch these films and that absolutely nothing can scare me anymore. But the thrill I love most is when a film comes along and proves me wrong.

If you’ve read enough of these entries of mine, you’ll know that a lot of my youth during the 80’s was filled with endless trips to mom and pop/grocery store video stores and each one of them has special place in my heart. Every store had its own lineup of VHS resting against varnished oak shelves and if I close my eyes, I can still see the fourteen year-old version of myself walking next to them with an unknown excitement stirring within me. There was a naïve fascination inside of me with those colorful cardboard boxes and what was on them. I didn’t even know which one to pick up first, they were all so marvelous. But, for every thirty or forty that were staring back at me just waiting to be held in my arms, there were those few that I refused to touch solely because their artwork alone sent a spark of cold fear down my spine. 1980’s The Changeling was one of them. There was something about that image of the battered wheelchair covered in spider webs with the shadow of a boy’s ghost next to it that I couldn’t get myself to get past. This was one of those films I somehow knew would give me nightmares if I even dared to pick it up. And I’m being serious when I say that up until a few weeks ago, I never would have sat in front of it.

The haunted house genre of 70’s and 80’s horror films is one of my secret favorites. I don’t tell many people my love for those kinds of films for the junior-high playground fear of being laughed and poked fun at. I know that sounds strange from a man who is almost forty years-old but it’s true. There are those haunted house films that I will never be able to get enough of (i.e., The Haunting, Burnt Offerings, and The Legend of Hell House) but there are some of those that I wouldn’t go near because on that level, I felt like I was still a nine year-old boy. I know that sounds rather absurd but it’s the truth. So when I finally sat down and did my homework on this particular film, I immediately had to seek it out and finally treat myself to something that was long-time coming. And before I even begin the review, I have to say that I wasn’t disappointed.

The film opens up with a family pushing their broken station wagon in the snow. The father, Dr. John Russell (George C. Scott), a distinguished musician and composer, is on vacation in upstate New York with his wife and daughter when their vehicle breaks down. In hopes of getting it to a station to get it repaired, Dr. Russell separates himself and goes to find a telephone booth as his family stays with the car. As he’s calling Emergency Road Service, a large truck comes careening down the road from out of nowhere and suddenly loses control in the slippery, icy road and veers off the road and directly – and violently - into the station wagon and Dr. Russell’s family, all as he watches from afar. The film’s title appears slowly under the image of Dr. Russell helplessly struggling to get out of the phone booth. Just this opening prologue is terrifying in itself and it immediately sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Now having to put his life back together, Dr. Russell accepts a position as a music professor at a Seattle university and is looking for a house to rent as he feels he’s overstayed his welcome at a friend’s house where he’d been staying. With the help of a member of the local historical preservation society named Claire (the gorgeous and Scott’s then real-life wife Trish Van Devere – who would be later cast in her iconic role in the fan-favorite The Hearse), he rents a large Victorian home, known as the Chessman House – which hasn’t been rented out in twelve years - and slowly begins to live his life as he once did, but not before slowly – and without knowing – descending into something he would have never expected.  As the house is being fixed up for him to move in, Dr. Russell sits at the piano in the music room and as he sits, playing a piece he’s already composed, he walks away from the instrument and eerily, one of the keys is suddenly played by an unknown and unseen presence. Scary? Well, not right off the bat. But we’re only 14 minutes into the film. That evening, while out and about at a fundraiser for the local orchestra, we are introduced to Senator Joseph Carmichael who stands before the group and gives a speech. We find out from Claire that the Senator is on the board of directors at the historical preservation society – a most important bit of information whose reasoning will make itself known later in the film.

At 6 am the following morning, Dr. Russell is startled from his sleep at 6 a.m. from the sounds of banging echoing throughout the house. This is where it all begins, albeit, slowly. We then see him sitting at the piano and doing what appears to be composing a new piece of music when he is again startled by a noise in the hallway, thinking it’s one of the caretakers who then comes in from outside. He then goes back to the piano and begins to record a lovely classical piece of music. Let me say that the piece is eerie, yet beautiful – pleasing to the ear, but haunting. Claire then comes in to bring Dr. Russell some paintings that originally belonged to the house when she notices his study. Opening it, she finds the red ball that once belonged to his daughter (that was referenced at the beginning of the film). It sends him into a sad state, making him remember the tragic events of the day she and his wife were killed. Again the next morning – at exactly 6 a.m. and during a touching scene where he is crying in his bed from having been thinking of his family, he is again frightened by the same sound of banging echoing through the house. He calls a serviceman to come look at the problem and it is immediately dismissed as a characteristic of the house, though Dr. Russell sees the timing of the noises too coincidental. Later on that night, he finds the faucet in the kitchen mysteriously running on its own and when he shuts it off, the noises from upstairs continue and he goes to investigate. He opens one of the rooms and slowly walks inside only to discover the faucet running on its own in one of the tubs upstairs…and immediately sees the disturbing image of a boy under the water. Scary? It’s getting there.

The next day, he confronts Claire about something of this nature maybe happening to the people who lived there before and she immediately assures him that there is a possibility that he’s working too hard, and that with the emotional strain he’s been through that it could be a figment of his imagination. Dr. Russell is about to accept this hypothesis when they are interrupted by Clarie’s secretary, Minnie, who states her mother is on the phone. When Claire goes inside to take the call, Minnie takes it upon herself to tell Dr. Russell that the paperwork to rent the house out to him had been rushed by Claire. She goes on to tell him that nobody has been able to live in it and that the house doesn’t want any inhabitants, therefore further confirming his suspicions. But, does she know more than she’s willing to admit? The next day, Dr. Russell is leaving his home when a piece of red-tinted window explodes from the top of the house, landing in front of him. He looks up at the house and immediately, we can see that he’s beginning to believe something – or someone – is watching and possibly calling out to him. He makes his way to the top floor of the house and begins to look through the abandoned corridors.  At the end of one of the endless hallways, he comes across a door and walks inside to expose what appears to be a storage closet. He notices that a part of the room has been boarded up so he begins to take it apart only to find a locked door hidden behind panels of wood that had been nailed against it. When he grabs a hammer hoping to break the lock and begins banging on it rhythmically, the house answers with the same echoing booms he’s been hearing every morning. Now frightened, he finally breaks the lock and busts the door down and when it opens up for him, he walks inside. Scary? Yeah, it’s revving up nicely.

He walks up a long staircase lined with spider webs unveiling what appears to be an attic room. In one corner, the iconic wheelchair from the film’s one-sheet can be seen and lo and behold, the window with the red-colored glass is there behind it. He also finds a document in the room with the letters “C S B” inscribed on it dated January, 1909. But what provides the I-need-to-change-my-pants-now scare is that Dr. Russell comes across a music box…that plays the exact same tune that he’d composed earlier in the film! He brings his recording and the music box before Claire and plays both of them for her simultaneously to prove to her – and also possibly, himself – that he’s not crazy.  She immediately dismisses it as a “startling coincidence” and he then tells her about Minnie and the information she gave him that day he was at her office and its possible validity. He’s convinced now that someone – or something – deliberately attempted to get him up to the attic. And with that, he takes Claire up there with him so she can see it for herself. After a look through it and just as they leave the room, the chair slowly moves on its own. Scary? I’m actually slowly becoming afraid to write anything further.

So John and Claire go back to the historical preservation society only to discover that there is no information whatsoever on the house before 1920, which baffles her, as she is positive that some kind of documentation of past renters would be available. When she asks Minnie about the location of the files prior to that year, her response is, What is it you want to know? Either she’s in on it, or she’s a well-placed red herring! She claims a doctor named Barnard with a son and a daughter lived there that year but had to sell the house due to a family tragedy. They take this newfound information and go down to the local hall of records and find something interesting within its microfilm. They discover that on February 15, 1909 the Barnard’s seven year-old daughter, Cora, was stuck by a coal cart outside the Chessman House. This drives Claire to deduce that Cora is the “C S B” on the document found in the attic. They head out to the local cemetery and quickly find the hedge stones of the entire family and John can’t help but see a slight connection between the way Cora was killed and the manner in which his daughter passed. What is it in that house, Claire?, the doctor ponders. What is it doing? Why is it trying to reach me? Here is where the story begins to envelope you. And here is where the story is about to grab you and throw you into the lake head-first.

That night, John is sitting in the study spending a quiet night looking through photo albums of his family. In the background we suddenly hear what appears to be something coming down the stairs. Knowing that he is in the house alone, he gets up to investigate, only to see it’s his daughter’s red ball; the one that he kept in his desk that had somehow slowly bounced step by step down to the study on the ground floor of the house. Now, this has got to be, hands down, one of the most eerie, most well executed pieces of fright in the entire haunted house genre. John gets up, grabs the ball and goes immediately to his desk…only to find the ball missing. Who took it and how did they manage to get it? Oh dear, sweet Lord, if the hairs don’t stand up on the back of your neck during this scene, there is definitely something wrong with you. But it gets even more frightening: He then immediately gets into his car and drives to a local suspended bridge. He takes the ball in his hand, and tosses it over the edge. In the back of my mind I can’t help but wonder if he was going to know the outcome of this.  He comes home, places his coat on the bannister and thinks everything is fine. That is, until the room is suddenly filled with the sound of an unknown child’s laugher and as he stands motionless before the flight of stairs, the same ball that had frightened him just minutes ago, the same ball that he’s thrown over the bridge’s edge was now coming down step by step, stopping right in front of him as if it were announcing to him, I’m here. If you haven’t shit your pants at this point, seriously…I feel for you.

On the advice of a doctor, John brings home a psychic medium in hopes of finally getting to the bottom of the situation. I mean, when all else fails, have a séance! And not only have it, record it! The medium herself is scary as shit right off the bat, her eerie voice telling the group that something is there…a child who is not at peace. There is something unnerving about the tone of her voice that just gets under your skin. She begins asking questions into the open air writing madly away on white sheets of paper over and over again in hopes of getting something. She asks the spirit to communicate with them, to show himself, to speak to them. There is a sense of brooding fright that begins to come over you here at this point and just a word of warning: there is no turning back from here. When the medium asks if the spirit is the one of the dead girl Cora and the spirit immediately answers, “NO”, it reveals itself to have the name of “Joseph” and it begins to frighteningly clamor for help. Here is where the iconic tagline is spoken by the medium in her monotone, eerie voice: How did you die, Joseph? Did you die in this house? Why do you remain? The loud violent crash of a vase against a wall ends the séance, and leaves your heart racing. But, I warn you. It’s about to get worse.

Dr. Russell takes the recorded tapes of the séance and decides to listen to them later on his own. As he rewinds them over and over again in hopes of finding something that will lead him in the right direction, he is then stopped cold in his tracks by the sound of a child’s whisper in the background. Someone was there! When the medium asks the spirit for its name, John can clearly hear a child’s voice whispering “Joseph!” Son of a bitch, it gets so scary here! The voice on the tape begins to clearly tell John that he was killed by his father…in his room…the room upstairs. We are immediately taken (in fantastic POV) to the room upstairs to see a young boy bathing in his tub, his father standing over him dressed in black. The father takes his child by the feet and the boy goes underwater, struggling helplessly. We hear the echoing booming sounds from the beginning of the film and immediately discover that those sounds are/were actually the sounds of the boy banging his fists against the metal tub he’s drowning in! He bangs them repeatedly with all his might until the life slowly slips out of his little body. The scene is very disturbing and extremely frightening and ends with the boy whispering the words, “body”, “ranch”, “the well”, “sacred heart” and “My name---Joseph Carmichael”.  Does that name sound familiar? It should, because here is where the puzzle starts to come together.

John is now convinced that something within the house isn’t right. Reading the writing on the pages the medium left behind, he can see all the words he wrote that Joseph spoke as he listened to the tape. Distraught and very frightened, he goes to the telephone and calls for Claire, but before he can summon her, he passes out on the floor of the study from shock. Claire arrives shortly and distraught from all the information she receives from John about the séance, she confesses to John that “Sacred Heart” used to be the name of an orphanage in the town and John immediately begins to think the child was buried in a well there. But before they can do anything else, they are frightened by the sight of the small wheelchair watching them from the top of the stairs! The child’s spirit knows they are getting close to solving the mystery! Or does it?

The next day, John is walking about town and we see a limousine pull up to reveal the Senator (Joseph Carmichael) emerging from it. We see him walking to a building and having his secretary inform him that Minnie (Claire’s secretary) has been trying to reach him. Minnie advises him that John and Claire have been going through the files regarding the house and he takes down John’s name. But, what is she helping him hide? John and Claire then meet later on at a local café and we find out from Claire that the house was at one point going to be turned into a museum. John tells her that a Richard Carmichael and his family occupied the house from 1899 to 1906 and that Richard is the Senator’s father. We also find out here that little Joseph at age three was diagnosed with atrophic arthritis and that it had been decided to send the child to a sanatorium in Switzerland for specialized therapy. The child and his father went to Europe in October of 1906 and that they did not return to the States until WWI was over. So, with the child being ill, he was murdered by his father and buried secretly. A six-year old orphan substitute to take the dead child’s place was shipped immediately overseas to be with his father and it kept them both away until 1918! Upon his return, he would have been 18 years old so there was no doubt that anyone was going to find out that this changeling was not the real son of Richard Carmichael! And if anyone would ask about the illness the child had, it would simply be stated that the child had been cured while in Europe. Now the question on both Claire and John’s minds is, Does Senator Carmichael know anything about the murder and replacement and who he really is?

But, here’s the hatchet in the stump: Richard Carmichael’s wife was the daughter of the man who founded the Spencer-Carmichael Empire. So what does that mean? Mega money! Mr. Spencer had died in 1905 so the question of what happened to all that money in the will was now burning on John and Claire’s lips. There had to have been a ranch with either of their names on it somewhere. I mean, John had heard Joseph’s voice say it, right? And it had to be a ranch…with a well. Upon going back to the hall of records, It turns out there was indeed a Carmichael Ranch back then in Seattle complete with a well. But, a house now stood upon the original well itself and the record indicated the well on that site had been removed. When John goes there himself to investigate, he finds package outside the house addressed to a Mrs. E. Gray at 136 27th Street. Will coming back to talk to Mrs. Gray be key in solving this once and for all?

It turns out that in the will, just about everything was left to little five year-old Joseph Carmichael and nothing was left to his father, Richard, since he was just a trustee of the estate now. But he still could still control his son who was going to be worth millions and millions of dollars unless, for some reason the child was to die before age 21, in which the entire estate would be given to charity, leaving Richard with absolutely nothing. John and Claire go back to Mrs. Gray’s home in an attempt to find out if there really is a well under the house. After listening to his story, she tells him that on the exact night of the séance, her daughter woke up screaming just after nightmare and in a disheveled state, came to her mother’s bedroom and never returned to her own. The girl, Linda, claims to have seen a boy trying to come up out of the floor of her room. Knowing John’s desire to take the floors up and look for a well, Mrs. Gray tells them she has to think about it. Later on that night, Linda wakes up and begins to walk around the house. She goes back into the room where the apparition took place and is terrified to see the image of a boy under her floor…underwater. The bedroom is torn apart the next day and indeed, a well is found. Creepy? You’d better believe it! And what is it they find? A hand! A hand and the bones of a young boy that had been down in the well for 50 years. But the most important piece of the puzzle, an old medal belonging to the young Carmichael, was nowhere to be found.

Needing this crucial bit of evidence, John breaks into Mrs. Gray’s house and goes back into the well, determined to find that last piece of the puzzle.  With no luck, John steps away…only to suddenly see the medal come up eerily up from the depths of the ground on its own. There it was, in plain sight. He takes it and goes to show it to Claire who reads from it, “St. Paul’s Church – Sept 8 1900 – Joseph Patrick Carmichael”. At her request to show it to the police, John believes the authorities won’t want to fiddle with a seventy year-old case and that what needs to be done needs to be done his way, and on his own. He takes a drive out to the airport to find the Senator and finds him boarding a small jet on his way to Washington State.  John knows this is his only chance so he struggles with the Senator’s security people and tells him about the baptism medal with his name on it that was buried with the body and that the police are aware of it. The jet takes off and the Senator asks that a Captain De Witt be telephoned at police HQ and that he call him in Spokane once he lands. He then reaches into his shirt and we can see a similar baptismal in the Senator’s possession.

When John gets back to the house, he walks inside and suddenly and violently the house begins to react. Slamming doors, boom upon boom echoing through the corridors. Here is where he becomes exasperated and begins to confront the spirit in the house, telling it that there is nothing more he can do. Captain De Witt then comes to visit John at the house, most certainly at the request of the Senator, asking question upon question in an attempt to find out what happened back at Mrs. Gray’s house and to accuse him of a possible blackmail scheme concocted by John himself. The captain even tells John that the Senator wants the medal back. It is here that Claire comes storming in to tell John that not only has his lease been cancelled, but that she’s been forced to resign. So where is this all leading to?

As John grabs hold of the medal and walks by the downstairs mirror, it violently explodes sending a shard of glass into his neck, but not before we see the bloodied face of Captain De Witt. Claire calls the house, frantic, telling John that the Captain’s car flipped over and that he’s dead. Carmichael himself receives a call in his limo to inform him of the death of the captain and he proceeds to go ahead and finally call John to meet with him. They finally meet privately in the Senator’s office but while this is happening, Claire is trying to contact John with no luck. She leaves her mother and goes to look for him. While in the Senator’s office, John begins to confront him about the things happening within the house and presents him with the medal, explaining to him where he found it and explaining to him the history of what’s been going on within the house. He then proceeds to tell the Senator that his father, Richard, killed the young Joseph and that there was a substitution from the Sacred Heart orphanage to replace Joseph, and that the changeling was him. Furious, the Senator pulls out his checkbook thinking it’s still an act of blackmail. John tells him again that his father was a murderer and that nothing in his life and that nothing that he has is real because he is not Carmichael’s blood son. John leaves him the paperwork found at the city and the only tape of the séance to prove everything to him. The Senator succumbs and gives in, telling John that he cannot breathe a word of this revelation to anyone – and John walks out, leaving the Senator alone.

Claire goes back to the house to look for him and as she proceeds to knock, the house lets her in on its own. She finds the house empty and suddenly, it begins to call out to her as if it were John. Something is in the house with her and it begins to fool her thinking John is there. She begins to walk upstairs through the corridors and thinking that he is calling her, she makes her way upstairs to the room only to have the wheelchair come to life and come after her. It chases her and throws her down the stairs and follows her as she lies on the floor screaming out in terror. This scene is so terrifying it will jolt you right out of your seat. You’ve been warned. John comes back to the house to find her screaming and horrified. Here is where the house begins to get its final revenge. John goes into the house and begins to confront the spirit of the young Joseph while making his way upstairs. Doors blow open, wind tears through the house and the force of the wind knocks John from the second level to the floor downstairs.  A trail of fire makes its way from the top of the stairway down the bannister as he lies on the floor, helpless.

Back at the Senator’s office, he is staring at the medal and hearing the voice of Joseph. He places it on his father’s portrait and it begins to shake violently. We then see an image of the Senator inside the now burning house as John looks up to see him walking up the stairs. The burning stairs implode, leaving no way to get to the upper part of the house. The chandelier swings violently back and forth and disconnects itself from the wall, crashing to the ground, missing John by mere inches. He is able to escape the house while the Senator is still upstairs and as he reaches the room, he is confronted by the image of his father killing young Joseph in the tub. He knew what had happened the entire time. He knew exactly what had taken place that night. As the ghost of young Joseph inflicts itself on the Senator, the boy’s bedroom atop of the house explodes. The house burns to the ground as the Senator is taken away by an ambulance as Claire and John watch from a distance.

The next morning, we see a glimpse of the ruins that were once the Chessman house. As the camera pans over the damage and charred remains that are left behind as testimony of the supernatural confrontation the night before, we see the music box that John found at the beginning of the film in the boy’s room lying out within the rubble. It suddenly opens up on its own and the sound of its song plays into the open air as the film comes to a close.

This has got to be one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen. The story was well-written, it was well-executed and I can honestly say that it’s unforgettable. It’s very rare that I sit in front of a film that gives me the genuine heebie-jeebies and for the sake of this review, it is the second time I’ve sat through it and even the second time if managed to terrify me. These days, horror relies too much on CGI and those graphic in-your-face explicit moments where nothing is left to the imagination. All of those endless “found footage” crap-fests and modern “haunted house” films that Hollywood churns out every year will never compare to a well-written masterpiece such as this. There is uneasy feeling that’s left in the pit of your stomach when the credits roll here and I can’t even remember the last time a film did that to me. You always know that a fright film did its job when you go to sleep and still think about it the next day. This film is a great example of how a story, its characters and their struggle can lodge themselves in your mind and leave a lasting impression. I can probably say that this is now my favorite haunted house film and I’ll probably get a lot of beef for saying that but that’s why I love being a horror auteur. Every horror fan has those films on their list that rock their world and forever change the way they watch films altogether.  The DVD by HBO Home Video is absolutely gorgeous with a very crisp and clear picture and print. The score is absolutely gorgeous – I actually wished I would have watched it with my home stereo – and everything about the DVD release is fantastic – albeit, it’s missing the film’s trailer. I read somewhere that this HBO disc is out-of-print and I have to say that it may possibly be true as I have yet to find it on a store shelf anywhere. I absolutely recommend this to anyone who loves their scares on a minimalist level or those who hate the wave of “modern horror” that’s been blasting theater screens. If you love a good haunted house story, sit in front of this. You will be so glad that you did.

P.S. I love the Spanish title of this film, Al Final de la Escalera. (At the end of the Staircase)