Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Hungry Ghost

The Changeling: written by Russell Hunter, William Gray, and Diana Maddox; directed by Peter Medak; starring George C. Scott (John Russell), Trish VanDevere (Claire Norman), Melvyn Douglas (Senator Joe Carmichael), John Colicos (Captain DeWitt) and Barry Morse (Dr. Pemberton) (1980): One of the good results of Canada's tax-shelter days for movies, The Changeling is a traditional ghost story that plays fair with its audience. It also won pretty much every major Canadian movie award for 1980, demonstrating that a horror movie can do such a thing, but only in Canada. Screw you, Oscar!

George C. Scott plays composer John Russell, who's removed himself to Seattle to teach at a university and try to recuperate from a personal tragedy. But the house he rents turns out to be haunted. But while the ghost there is initially prone mainly to minor fits of glass-breaking and noise-making, its persistence leads Russell to try to figure out who it was and why it's still hanging around. Director Peter Medak and his writers build the suspense gradually, with attention to detail that makes the scares, when they come, quite effective.

Scott stays under control for most of the picture, and has some fine character moments -- one in which he weeps in bed is especially effective. Scott's wife, Trish VanDevere, plays a local woman who helps with the investigation of the ghost's origins and motives. The investigation itself is a time capsule of technology: there's a reel-to-reel recorder and microfilm involved!

One of the sharpest things about The Changeling is its refusal to become sentimental, a decision that's laudable given the subject material. This may be the ghost of a child, but it's had decades for its rage to build. Its apparent allies may be in as much danger from its wrath as those it's seeking revenge upon.

A lot of Canadian stalwarts -- most notably John Colicos and Barry Morse -- make what are basically extended cameos. This is really a two-person show, with some able assistance from the soon-to-be-dead Melvyn Douglas as a U.S. Senator with a connection to the mystery. Recommended.

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