Tag Archives: George C. Scott

The O Canada Blogathon: The Changeling(1980)

Canada blogathon

Ruth at Silver Screenings and Kristina at Speakeasy are co-hosting this blogathon devoted to all things Canadian. Be sure to visit their sites to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself.

I’m writing about the 1980 horror/Psychological Thriller film The Changeling, a large part of which was shot on location in Canada. Not only is the film a chilling ghost story, but it also plays around with genre tropes and audience expectations in ways which make it very different to your average haunted house film.

Ghost stories have been around for that long, that none of us alive today know what the first ever spooky tale to be told was. Despite the many changes and advancements human society has undergone over the centuries, two things about us have remained constant – our fascination with death and the supernatural, and also our desire to be told a spooky tale which will send a shiver down our spines.

The Horror genre has long been popular and successful in both literature and film. The first ever Horror film to be made was the 1896 film The House Of The Devil. The success of the Universal Monster movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and all those spooky Val Lewton productions, proved that film audiences had a taste for all things frightening. While screen monsters and killers were depicted as being as scary and grotesque as possible, ghosts on the other hand were often just used to bring about very brief scares, or were used as sources of comedy for much of the classic film era – think of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit,or of the Topper films for example.

                                                            Image sources IMDb.

Once the 1960’s rolled around, the screen ghost story drastically changed to become far scarier, darker and deeper, both psychologically and emotionally. Ghosts were no longer there merely to provide brief shocks or laughs. Films such as The Innocents and The Haunting remain the ultimate ghost/haunted house films for many fans of the genre.

Horror films of the 1970’s, with the exception of a few titles such as The Legend Of Hell House and The Amityville Horror, were more about slasher horror rather than supernatural scares. Slasher horror seemed to be what most filmmakers and fans of the genre were digging at the time, and for the most part it has to be said that not much seems to have changed if today’s horror flicks are anything to go by. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great slasher flicks out there,and on occasion I don’t mind watching them, but for me nothing beats a good supernatural or psychological horror film. 

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John Russell’s new home is haunted. Screenshot by me.

In 1980 a film came along which I consider to be one of the last truly great ghost/haunted house films.

The unsettling Canadian film The Changeling is the film which famously turned a bouncing ball into one of the most frightening objects that you will ever see.

The Changeling was shot on location in various parts of Canada and America, including New York(location work at the Lincoln Centre), Seattle and Vancouver. The majority of location filming took place in British Columbia.

The film was written by Diana Maddox and William Gray. The script is based upon playwright Russell Hunter’s(his first name becomes the surname of the main character in the film) claims of the supposedly true supernatural events that he experienced while living in the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Cheesman Park,Denver,Colorado, in 1968. The film is directed by Peter Medak(The Ruling Class, The Krays)and produced by Joel B. Michaels and Garth Drabinsky. The eerie score is by Canadian composer Rick Wilkins. The film’s title is inspired by the word changeling, which in folklore is the name given to a human-like fairy child left in place of a stolen human one. 

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George C. Scott as John Russell. Screenshot by me.

John Russell(George C. Scott)is a composer who is trying to reassemble the pieces of his life following the tragic deaths of his wife Joanna(Jean Marsh)and their daughter Kathy(Michelle Martin)in an horrific traffic accident that occurs while the family are on holiday. This man has been witness to one of the worst moments of horror anyone could possibly experience. 

Now lonely and wracked with grief, John Russell moves out of his home, and at the gentle urging of some friends, rents a Victorian house in Seattle, Washington, which is under the care of the local Historical Society. Claire Norman(Trish Van Devere) an agent of the Preservation Society shares the history of the house with him and he agrees to rent. John and Claire become friends and John takes on some musical work. A little while after moving in, John begins to be plagued by weird noises and frightening occurrences in the house. He and Claire research the history of the house and unearth an horrific discovery.

After a medium is invited to the house to determine whether or not the disturbances are caused by spirits, things take a very interesting turn indeed. Not only does John become convinced that the supernatural is very real, but it is also at this point that The Changeling becomes a film which plays around with audience expectation and with traditional haunted house tropes. The film does a sharp left turn and not only turns into an intriguing mystery thriller, all be it one which also includes more than a few moments of horror, but also turns into a moving tale of obtaining justice from beyond the grave. 

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John and Claire do some research on the haunted house. Screenshot by me.

John and Claire discover that the house is haunted by the angry and distressed spirit of a boy called Joseph Carmichael. He was the heir of the original owners of the house, but was murdered by his father because he was a very sickly child. The father then told staff/associates etc that he was sending his son abroad in the hopes of improving his condition.

The murder was kept hidden, and even worse than that, Mr. Carmichael replaced his son with an orphan boy of the same age and similar appearance, and it is he who is sent abroad as the Carmichael heir. When he returns years later all grown up and healthy, nobody is any the wiser that this is not the real Joseph whose health has improved over the years. Joseph seeks revenge on his replacement, who is now an American Senator(Melvyn Douglas), from beyond the grave. The supernatural events Joseph is responsible for in the house are his way of trying to get John Russell to help him uncover the injustice done to him. 

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John Russell decides to stay and help rather than run in fear. Screenshot by me.

What I like most about this film is the character of John Russell. He is not a man who is scared easily. It could be said that he reacts perhaps too calmly to sharing a house with a ghost, but considering that he has just been through something so horrendous, it could be that everything else rather pales in comparison to seeing the loves of his life killed before his eyes.He’s not so phased any more, even by something that most people normally would be. 

When the supernatural events do begin, John isn’t instantly quaking in his shoes convinced they must be supernatural in origin. Nor does he run away in blind terror when it becomes obvious that Joseph’s ghost is real. He also isn’t on the phone to the local priest begging him to come round and douse the gaffe in holy water. In fact he actually becomes the ghosts defender, and in a strange way a sort of a protector, and he doesn’t rest until he’s uncovered the truth about Joseph’s murder. This, coupled with the fact that the horror elements present in the film aren’t predictable and familiar, is something which helps makes us feel this film is bringing something different and fresh to the genre. It’s also worth bearing in mind that considering that Joseph’s ghost is revealed to be real, does that then mean that John’s wife and daughter are also ghosts who are stranded at their place of death, seeing as how they were killed so suddenly and brutally? 

I also think that casting George C. Scott for this role was a stroke of genius. He more than earned his $1 million paycheck for this film. George was not only a tough guy in real life, but the former US Marine was also well known for being a hard man on screen. In this film however he gets to show us a much softer side than we are used to seeing. In one heartbreaking scene he breaks down crying thinking of his lost family, it’s a very touching moment and Scott is extremely vulnerable in it. He also plays John as being a very levelheaded man, something which lends a realism to his eventual shift into believing what is going on is being caused by a ghost. 

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He’d just got rid of that ball. Screenshot by me.

Another aspect of the film which makes it a bit different, is that in addition to the scares, of which there are plenty, there is also a great deal of emotion present in this film.

 The Changeling is really a film about grief, death,loss, loneliness and rage. Loss and pain are ever present in the film – from John losing his family and struggling to cope, to Joseph losing his life before he’s even had the chance to really start living it. It’s also a film about how the family unit isn’t always the loving and safe space for some that it always should be. The film also shows us that those in positions of power can get away with even the most horrendous acts being covered up and going unchallenged. Sound familiar? It all hits home because it’s so real. The horror in this film isn’t of the demonic type, it is horror perpetrated by humans against fellow humans, even against their own flesh and blood.  Sadly we know that such horror occurs in real life far more often than we’d all care to admit.  

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Claire and John. Screenshot by me.

I also love how the film switches from outright horror and creepiness halfway through to become a gripping mystery. This could have easily hurt the film, but instead it feels like the right move and ensures you’re still on the edge of your seat, all be it while peeking through your fingers.

I also love the growing bond developing between John and Claire, something which is helped of course by the fact that George and Trish were married in real life. There’s more than a hint of the possibility that this tender friendship will develop into a romance at some point in the future. 

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Melvyn Douglas as the changeling of the title. Screenshot by me.

While George is great and undoubtedly the star of the film, I personally think Trish delivers the best performance in the film. She is especially good in the scene at the bottom of the stairs, where she goes from crying to becoming rooted to the spot in fear,as she catches sight of something horrendous. Just a brilliant performance. 

George and Trish receive fine support from the rest of the cast, several of whom were Canadian. Notable actors who are also in the film include John Colicos, Madeleine Sherwood and Barry Morse. Veteran American actor Melvyn Douglas brings gravitas to the role of Senator Carmichael. It is never fully clear exactly how much the replacement knew about what Joseph’s father did to his son, but it’s clear he knew something, or at least had some suspicions. Melvyn keeps it ambiguous in his performance. 

The film is something of a hidden gem. It wasn’t really that well received upon release and had something of a slow burn rise to acclaim, but over the last few decades its reputation has grown and it has now found its fanbase. The film did receive some love upon release in Canada however. Founded in 1980, the new Canadian film awards The Genie Awards handed out 8 Genie Awards to the cast and crew of The Changeling – including awards for Best Picture,Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction/Production Design for Trevor Williams. George and Trish took home the best Foreign actor and actress awards.  

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George C. Scott stands in front of one of the most convincing looking facades in film history. Image source IMDb.

The Production/Art design win in particular was well deserved. Trevor and his team did wonders on this film. For starters the house which features in the film looks like a real house, but it was actually a designed facade placed over the front of an existing smaller property. I was blown away when I learnt it wasn’t a real property, it looks so real that I just assumed it was an old abandoned house they’d found. The stunning interiors of John’s home were also built for the film, and they were shot on interconnected sets at Panorama Film Studios,West Vancouver,British Columbia. 

If you’re looking for a  good horror film which deviates from the norm somewhat, then this is the film for you. Would love to hear from you if you’re a fan of this one. 

The New Centurions (1972)

Dixon Of Dock Green this film sure isn’t. The New Centurions gives us a frank look at the reality of policing the streets, and it throws us headfirst into the dirt, pain, and the horror of the streets of 1970’s Los Angeles. This is a warts and all portrayal of the reality of police work. Walking the beat is not a pretty job and it is always dangerous.New centurions

At the time this film was made and set, the days when a copper could simply defuse a situation just by walking around the corner were sadly long gone. Over in America in particular, an increase in prostitution, gun crime and overall violence meant that policing the beat was more dangerous than it had ever been before.The film is directed by Richard Fleischer, has a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, and music by the great Quincy Jones.

The film is based upon Joseph Wambaugh’s 1971 novel of the same name. Wambaugh was a serving LAPD cop when he wrote the book. His experience of the job meant that the novel was a very realistic portrayal of the Police department. The realism and authenticity of the novel is carried over into the film. The film’s technical advisor was Richard E. Kalk, he was also a serving officer and he was Wambaugh’s police partner.

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Roy and Kilvinski out on patrol. Screenshot by me.

This is one of the best films about patrolling the beat ever made anywhere in the world in my opinion.

George C. Scott is utterly ferocious here as Kilvinski, the tough, older, wiser and more experienced police officer mentoring a young rookie. Kilvinski has seen it all during his years on the force. Nothing surprises him anymore. No form of violence shocks him to the core as it once might have; it still affects him of course, but he has learnt to hide the disgust and horror. He’s tough but fair, and he certainly does his best to help those in need when and where he can.

The film is split into a series of incidents involving Kilvinski and several other officers. We follow three young rookies. They are all very keen men, and they are all determined to bring law, order and justice to the streets that they will patrol. They are Roy (Stacy Keach),Sergio (Erik Estrada)and Gus (Scott Wilson). These men are each paired with a senior officer who will partner and support them while they get settled in. Gus is partnered with Whitey (Clifton James), Sergio with Galloway (Ed Lauter) and Roy with Kilvinski.

There is a documentary look to the film which helps to make it come across as being very realistic. We are made to feel as though we are out there patrolling the streets with these officers, and feel like we are encountering and getting to know the villains and victims along with the police officers.

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Kilvinski comforts Dorothy. Screenshot by me.

This film is both shocking and violent. It is also extremely bleak. It shows us that these officers can face death at any time from anybody.

We also see that this job emotionally destroys the men and women who do it, they seldom remain the same as they were when they first joined the force. It’s not just the dead officers whose photos hang on the station wall who pay the price, every single person on the force pays some kind of price for their service.

The film also shows us that for some on the force the job is literally all they have. If they retire, or if they have to leave for other reasons, it can be near on impossible for them to have a meaningful life away from the force.The film also shows the effect that a police officers career can have on their family. The families of these officers are victims too, they also end up paying a heavy price for supporting their loved one in their job. We see that the cops spend more time on the job and sadly their family then often begin to come in second place to the job. Jane Alexander is excellent as Fehler’s wife Dorothy. She has to watch the job create quite an impact on their personal life and she struggles to accept that change.

The entire cast give superb performances with special praise going to Scott. He was famous for being able to portray pent up rage, and for flipping into all out anger in many of his films. Here he gets to unleash the famous Scott screen rage on several occasions.

A scene that will stay with me forever is when one of the rookies is chasing a robbery suspect in the dark, somebody runs at him and he shoots them, when he gets closer he sees it’s the father of the robbery victim. This man had come out into the alley to look for the suspect too. When the officer sees what he has done he breaks down, and he looks so haunted, it’s a powerful moment for sure. This scene also serves to remind us that the Police can slip up and can do wrong themselves, whether by mistake or done deliberately. 

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The men show their appreciation to Kilvinski. Screenshot by me.

My favourite scenes are the following. Kilvinski comforting Dorothy at the hospital. The officer briefing his men at the start of the film ( I love the banter between the guys in this). The shoot out in the bank car park. Kilvinski and Roy getting a group of prostitutes off the street(this is a very funny sequence and I think it’s nice that there is a lighthearted moment in an otherwise serious and bleak flick). Kilvinski and Sergio speaking to a despicable landlord, and Kilvinski then giving this a guy a piece of his mind. Kilvinski explaining his laws.

If you didn’t respect the police before seeing this, then I would seriously hope that seeing this would change your mind. Yes there are unfortunately some people who really shouldn’t be serving and are a disgrace to the police force, but the majority of the men and women in the force are decent and honest, and they are a real credit to the police and their country. These people risk their lives for us and the job takes a huge toll on them and on their personal life, and they often get very little reward for the risks they take, or for their sacrifices and hard times. 

This flick tells it like it is, and it sure isn’t pretty to behold. The story is gripping and the characters believable. It is the performances that draw me back to this one again and again. The actors playing the rookies all do a superb job of showing their personalities change as they get their eyes opened to the realities of the job. George C. Scott steals all the scenes he is in, and his character really becomes the heart of the film.

This is one of my favourite films about police officers. I also think it is one of the best films of the 70’s, and it deserves to be more well known today. See this if you enjoyed Dirty Harry and Law and Order (TV series).

Any other fans of this one? Please leave your thoughts on this film below.