That Old Haunted House: The Changeling (1980)
by Steve Habrat
Around the same time that I discovered The Amityville Horror, the mother of one of my close friends found out I was looking into ghost movies and haunted house thrillers. One day, while I was over their house, she lent me The Changeling on DVD. She told me it was one of the scariest movies she had ever seen and that it was a really engaging detective story. With anticipation levels high, I dashed home to watch director Peter Medak’s take on the old haunted house genre. While just as understated as most of the classic haunted house movies, The Changeling has such a bleak and depressing atmosphere that really weighs on the viewer. It can be terrifying of it wants to be, especially when it borrows that famous banging from The Haunting, but it really leaves the viewer an emotionally wreck. Credit could also go to the wonderful George C. Scott, who plays the grieving composer who lost his family in a snowy car accident while on a vacation. The Changeling also holds us close as it cleverly blends in a sharp detective story that certainly has a fascinating if a bit messy payoff when it all comes together at the angry climax. Needless to say, the film was certainly an improvement over The Amityville Horror. It still doesn’t feature a massive demonic pig, which is a huge disappointment but I got over it pretty quick.
While on a snowy getaway, kind composer John Russell (Played by George C. Scott) watches helplessly as his wife and daughter are run over in a horrifying car accident. Following their death, John moves to dreary Washington State and rents a seemingly deserted mansion to try to work through the tragedy. After a few nights in the massive Victorian mansion, John begins to experience strange occurrences which include a terrible banging noise from somewhere in the house at exactly 6:00 am. After a particularly disturbing encounter with an apparition, John soon confides in his realtor, Claire Norman (Played by Trish Van Devere), who urges him to investigate the bizarre activity. As John brings in multiple paranormal investigators, he realizes that some of the activity could be linked to wealthy United States senator Joseph Carmichael (Played by Melvyn Douglas). But as the occurrences continue, John’s mental state and grief is pushed to the limit, especially when the ghost begins to make reference to John’s deceased daughter.
I am reluctant to share too much of The Changeling’s plot, mostly because the anticipation of what will happen next within the story does keep you on the line for nearly two hours. Director Medak applies a slow-build pace that heightens the terror with each little creak, bang, and chandelier shake. Things really get spooky when the characters are stalked through the mansion halls by an old rickety wheelchair that chases them down multiple flights of stairs. While I can say that Medak doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the haunted house table, he does construct some seriously disturbing encounters with the supernatural pest driving John bonkers. The standout sequence is undoubtedly a séance sequence, where the ghost manifests itself through a medium and forces her to write out a number of cryptic messages that plead for help from John. If I were John, I’d think about packing up my suitcase and getting the hell out of that house right then and there. Alas, John doesn’t and he gets in too deep with the angry spirit. Adding to the terror is the lonely, isolated, and broken atmosphere that hangs over John’s head like a black raincloud. It adds so much emotion to the story that it is almost hard to resist The Changeling’s pull.
Easily the best part of The Changeling is Scott as the grieving composer who is trying to piece his life back together. The one touch that I absolutely loved about John was that he doesn’t fall to little pieces when the paranormal activity kicks into high gear. He almost seems detached from it and, dare I say, relieved when it starts because it almost seems to distract his painful thoughts that have etched themselves into his weary face. At one point, he weeps in bed only to have his private moment of sadness clipped short by a loud clanking sound that distracts him from his inner pain. There is almost a love story that develops between John and Claire, the understanding realtor who steps into this paranormal mystery willingly. The two have great chemistry and I was really rooting for a romance between the two but grief just seemed to stand in the way. Douglas is wonderfully cool as Senator Carmichael, who flat out refuses to have his family’s name tarnished by the investigation launched by John. John Colicos shows up as Captain DeWitt, who casts a suspicious eye on John and his stories.
One of the superior cinematic ghost stories, this Canadian horror gem does find its conclusion getting a bit bogged down in the answer-heavy final frames. My one other complaint I have with The Changeling is the silly ghostly voice that echoes through the hallways of the spooky mansion. It seems manipulated and almost a little too friendly, like John is being terrorized by Casper. Despite these two flaws, there is still plenty of dread and unease in The Changeling, making it one that sticks with you long after it ends. Your stomach will fall every time John enters the house after going out. He stops in the doorway, looks around like he is surveying for any apparitions peering down on him, and then slowly eases himself through the rest of the house. You’ll tremble when a ball that belonged to John’s daughter comes bouncing down the grand staircase right to her father’s feet. And I dare you not to leap off your couch when that seriously wicked wheelchair wheels in for the kill. Overall, The Changeling remains stationed just outside the long list of horror classics and I’ve never been able to figure out why. It is a must for those who love character driven terror and it is blast for those who love a good shock. It may not reinvent the haunted house but The Changeling certainly knows how to make the familiar scary as hell.
The Changeling is available on DVD.
That Old Haunted House: The Amityville Horror (1979)
by Steve Habrat
I’ve always been fascinated with The Amityville Horror and the real-life story of the Lutz family. In high school, I even convinced my English teacher to let me write an essay on the story and do some research into what took place in that legendary home. While the story told by the Lutz family may have been fabricated, the DeFeo family murders that took place in 112 Ocean Avenue, Long Island still chilled me to my core. Naturally, while I was writing the paper, I also took a trip to the local video store to rent director Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 film The Amityville Horror, which was based on the book of the same name by Jay Anson. While The Amityville Horror 1979 is infinitely better than the 2005 remake, the film is still plagued by a number of plot goofs that are extremely hard to ignore. Also troubling is the lack of a thrilling ending and the fact that the Lutz family, at least the cinematic Lutz family, never seems to be in grave danger as they make their hasty escape from that evil home. Still, The Amityville Horror 1979 does have some pretty snappy performances, especially from James Brolin as the axe wielding George Lutz, who seems to be loosing his sanity each day he remains in the home, and Margot Kidder as Kathy Lutz, George’s loving wife who has to watch her family fall apart at the hands of cranky poltergeists.
Newlyweds George (Played by Brolin) and Kathy (Played by Kidder) Lutz purchase a seemingly peaceful Dutch Colonial home in Amityville, New York. The couple, along with Kathy’s three children, instantly falls in love with the home despite the gruesome murders that took place a year earlier. As the family moves in, Father Delaney (Played by Rod Steiger), a friend of Kathy, comes to bless the home. Shortly after Father Delaney begins his blessing, flies attack him and a booming, disembodied voice commands him to “GET OUT!” Father Delaney flees from the home without explanation and is slowly consumed by madness and plagued by bizarre demonic forces. Meanwhile, the Lutz family begins to have strange experiences in the house, each more terrifying than the last. To make things worse, George suffers a drastic shift in personality. He is testy and has a fascination with the axe that he uses to chop firewood. As the events in the home become increasingly more violent, Kathy begins to take a closer look at the history of the home. She also begins battling for George’s sanity.
Released by an independent studio, The Amityville Horror 1979 surprisingly has plenty of special effects and visual shocks ready and waiting for the viewer as they tour this legendary house of horrors. The opening sequence of the film, with Ronald DeFeo, Jr. marching through the home in the middle of a nasty thunderstorm and gunning down his family is certainly an eerie sequence. It is ripe with splashes of gore and heavy with an unshakeable evil atmosphere that cuts deeper with each crack of thunder and flash of lightning. Director Rosenberg has a difficult time topping his stellar stage setter and struggles to recreate that same atmosphere when the supernatural kicks into high gear. The film then snowballs into a flurry of slamming doors, disembodied voices, oozing ectoplasm, homicidal madness, and even a giant demonic pig with very little pay off. While the events are certainly creepy, the film botches a major plot point involving George Lutz’s striking resemblance to Ronald DeFeo, Jr. Don’t hope for any elaboration on this plot point because the film drops it just as quickly as it brings it up. Ignore the plot holes and just tremble at the black sludge oozing out of the toilets! Someone call a plumber.
Despite an uneven plot, the cast fully commits to the project, especially Kidder and Brolin, who appear to be having a pretty good time. Brolin has a nice time shifting from shaggy family man into perpetually freezing psycho who could snap at any minute and chop his family up with an axe. Kidder, who was coming off the high that was Superman, is a treat as religious housewife Kathy. The duo has chemistry, enough that it can cover for some of the other screw-ups in the script department. Steiger is over-the-top fun as Father Delaney, who falls apart from his memorable ghostly encounter in the home. His crowning moment comes when he is struck blind during a hair-raising church service sequence. Natasha Ryan ups the horror as Kathy’s young daughter, Amy, who has the creepiest imaginary friend on the planet. At times, Rosenberg seems well aware that children can be immensely disturbing so he works Ryan in any time he can and urges her to bring up “Jody,” her spirit chum who has a commanding hold on the young girl. Irene Dailey also shows up as Kathy’s Aunt Helena, a nun who gets physically ill from stepping inside that horrific home.
There is no denying that the build up crated by Rosenberg is actually scarier than the noisy climax. Once again set in the middle of a storm, the Lutz family decides to make a break for it as the ghosts unleash absolute hell on them. Walls ooze blood, doors slam, and the chandelier threatens to fall to the floor as they all speed walk to the family van only to realize that they have forgotten the family pooch. Brave George decides he is going back into the house alone and that he is going to venture down into the basement, where more horrors I will not reveal here have been discovered. The problem with the climax is that you never really fear for George as he makes his way through drippy funhouse. I was actually more afraid for the dog than I was for George. The film does have a creepy score composed by Lalo Schifrin will certainly send a few more chills your way and even aid in the creation of a sinister atmosphere. Considering an independent studio released the film, The Amityville Horror went on to be one of the most successful films of 1979. I’m sure it had plenty to do with the fact that the film was really wearing the “based on a true story” tagline on its sleeve. Overall, The Amityville Horror isn’t nearly as scary as you hope it will be but it does have a handful of jump scares that never cease to get you. The film is well acted, it has a nice build up, and it does have one hell of an introduction. Now if we could just ignore those glaring plot holes and that bunk ending.
The Amityville Horror is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
That Old Haunted House: The Legend of Hell House (1973)
by Steve Habrat
If Robert Wise’s The Haunting is too tame for you, you’re in luck because there just happens to be a haunted house film that has plenty of gore and ghostly sex to please the edgier horror fan. That film happens to be John Hough’s 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, a film that is quite similar to The Haunting in the plot department but separates itself through the use of color and racy subject matter. While I personally do not find the film as creepy as Wise’s masterpiece, The Legend of Hell House has a suspenseful first act, one with slowly manifesting ectoplasm, supernatural intercourse, and tumbling chandeliers (those are the worst) but then collapses in its second act with corpses in hidden rooms and a seriously scrappy black cat (those are pretty bad too). Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, the man who brought us the classic vampire tale I Am Legend, The Legend of Hell House is never as understated and as slow building as The Haunting and it comes up short because of it. It can’t wait to show off a few special effects and throw a few of the snippy actors and actresses through the air. At least the film packs a hell of a séance sequence doused in vibrant red lighting and stunning exterior shots that conceal the house behind rolling walls of fog. It’s scenes like this that inject quite a bit of atmosphere and allow the film to receive higher marks.
The Legend of Hell House introduces us to physicist Lionel Barrett (Played by Clive Revill), who is sent to the legendary Belasco House, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses” to research the paranormal activity that is said to go on in the house. The Belasco House was originally owned by Emeric Belasco (Played by Michael Gough), a sadistic millionaire giant who enjoyed toying with the occult and may have even murdered people within the walls of the home. It is said that Emeric mysteriously disappeared after a brutal massacre at the lavish compound and was never heard from again. Barrett sets out for the home with his wife, Ann (Played by Gayle Hunnicutt), medium Florence Tanner (Played by Pamela Franklin), and Ben Fischer (Played by Roddy McDowall), another jumpy medium who has investigated the Belasco House before with another paranormal research team and was the only survivor of the previous investigation. As they explore the house, Lionel reveals to the team that he has created a machine that is able to rid the house of any nasty paranormal activity. Things become complicated when Florence becomes convinced that Emeric Belasco is not the one haunting the house but is actually his son, Daniel. As the group attempts to communicate with Daniel, madness begins to plague the group, possession is a daily occurrence, and repulsive horrors turn up behind doors that have been sealed many years.
Embracing more the macabre freedom that was surging through the veins of the horror film, The Legend of Hell House doesn’t settle on just telling us about the morbid back-story of the Belasco House. It dares to show us a little bit of the sleaze that took place and even enjoys some bloodletting from time to time. We hear about vampirism, orgies, alcoholism, mutilation, necrophilia, and cannibalism, just to name a few. Sounds like a kicking party, right? This is a film with plenty of sexuality boiling to the surface as characters plead with other characters for sex while even the shadowy spirits are getting busy. Most of it is unintentionally hilarious, especially when one character offers herself up sexually to a ghost (I dare you to watch that scene with a straight face). Despite some of the silliness, the film never seems to loose its grip on the gothic mood that creeps about it. The outside of the house is downright terrifying and certainly a home I would never dream of going in. The cherry on top is the black cat that waits in the fog outside, the ultimate Halloween touch. The interior of the home is crammed with shadows and hidden rooms that spit out decaying corpses and discolored skeletons. It’s all earth tones, which give the whole place a rotten feel, appropriate for what took place inside.
The Legend of Hell House does feature some pretty good performances, especially from Roddy McDowall as the spooked medium who refuses to help out. Only there for the large some of cash he was promised, McDowall’s Fischer is an irritating and prickly geek with oversized glasses who has to man up in the final moments of the film. I would never expect his character to suddenly become as brave as he does but that is part of the fun of his character. Revill plays Lionel much like every other head of a paranormal research team. He is deadly serious and always just a tad bit dry as he drones on about scientific theories. His wife Ann, however, suffers from a severe case of ennui and sexual repression, something the spirits of the Belasco House prey upon instantly. Wait for the scene where she tries to seduce Fischer. Rounding out the main players is Franklin as Florence, who seems vaguely similar to The Haunting’s Eleanor but also drastically different. She appears to be connected to the house and also a bit reluctant to leave. She is really put through the ringer as a nasty demonic kitty claws at her bare skin and a ghostly presence wishes to get busy with her. Franklin does get the film’s creepiest moment, a séance sequence that is lit entirely by harsh red lights. And keep a look out for Michael Gough as a very still Emeric Belasco.
While there are plenty of flashy moments strewn about The Legend of Hell House, it does take a page out of The Haunting’s playbook and does spend a good chunk of time allowing its character to really develop. They argue and fight much like they did in The Haunting but they are never allowed the depth that Wise’s characters were. There is no question that Edgar Wright’s fake trailer Don’t, which appeared in 2007’s Grindhouse, was inspired by the film. All it will take is a quick glimpse of the outside of the Belasco House and you will see what I am talking about. The second half of The Legend of Hell House is what really derails the film. The last act twist is sort of silly and doesn’t shock us nearly as much as it wants to. Despite how cheesy it may get, you can’t take your eyes of McDowall and his suddenly tough medium who was such a pain in the ass before. Overall, The Legend of Hell House is a fun little erotic spin on The Haunting and visually it is something to behold. The heavier use of special effects have caused the film to age poorly but as a lesser-known horror film of the 1970s, it actually manages to be a fun little ghost party. There is no doubt that you can do better but for those on the search for something they haven’t seen before on Halloween night, The Legend of Hell House may be just what the goth doctor ordered.
The Legend of Hell House is available on DVD.
That Old Haunted House: The Haunting (1963)
by Steve Habrat
I think that most critics and horror fans would all agree that Robert Wise’s 1963 chiller The Haunting is the king of haunted house films. Adapted from the novel by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting is a psychological spookfest that immensely enjoys developing its characters before it slow burns into a seriously terrifying blaze of unhinged madness and supernatural bangs. Reluctantly to get flashy with its special effects, Wise keeps The Haunting down to earth with only ghostly whispers just in the other room, shadowy faces crawling across the wall, and a buckling door, all of which scare the viewer more than a ghostly specter manifesting ever would. While it certainly won’t go over big with the blood and guts crowd, Wise crafts an arty and classy character study that certainly pushed the envelop for its time. While The Haunting didn’t initially blow me away when I first saw, repeated viewings and readings on the film have deepened my appreciation of Wise’s vision. The understated style of the film was the ultimate shock for me, that Wise was able to scare us so badly while barely lifting a finger. You’ll never hear knocking the same way again.
The Haunting begins with a lengthy back-story of Hill House, a sprawling mansion that has seen its fair share of suicide, death, and horror over the years. The film then speeds ahead to present day with Dr. John Markway (Played by Richard Johnson), a paranormal investigator, searching for supernatural evidence at Hill House. He has invited three other guests, Hill House inheritor Luke Sanderson (Played by Russ Tamblyn), psychic Theodora (Played by Claire Bloom), and supernaturally sensitive Eleanor Lance (Played by Julie Harris), to join him in his search. As the group settles in, they are given the history of Hill House and taken on a tour of the massive structure. While most of the occurrences are debunked instantly by Dr. Markway, the night unleashes horrors beyond the group’s imagination. To make things worse, Eleanor begins to loose her grip on reality and becomes convinced the house wants her to stay. Things go from bad to worse when Grace Markway (Played by Lois Maxwell) shows up to make sure her husband isn’t having an affair.
Right from the get go, Wise makes sure we know that Hill House is the star of this show. The house is certainly a character here as Eleanor constantly complains that the house is watching her and that it is demanding that she stay there forever. While it seems to have some ghostly spirits wandering its halls, the house itself appears to spring to life as doors swing shut, horrific banging can be heard echoing through the halls, and faces appear in the walls. We don’t need the characters to tell us that the house is evil, all we have to do is take a look around. The real beauty of The Haunting comes in the way it handles its supernatural inhabitants. There is no elaborate monster waiting to leap out of a darkened closet or damp basement and there is no doorway to Hell waiting under the stairs. It just seems like it is a home stuffed with bad energy and that is creepy enough for me. A good majority of the time, I wondered if the home was truly haunted or if one of the other guests had a sick sense of humor and was just out to give Eleanor a heart attack. For a while, Wise allows us to believe that I must say it adds a bit of comfort before he really allows his spirits to have their hair-raising fun.
When Hill House isn’t busy stealing the show, Wise keeps his camera aimed at the splendid Harris and Johnson. Harris is unforgettable as the emotionally fragile Eleanor, who falls apart at every little bump or whisper. She is incredibly naïve and repressed as she longs for the affection of Dr. Markway. Johnson never ceases to amaze as quickly tries to explain away all the activity that is taking place around Eleanor. He probes her inner demons and really digs deep into why she seems so emotionally unstable. Bloom holds her own as the lesbian psychic Theodora, who pines after the worrywart Eleanor. Wait for the scene in which a loud banging noise has Eleanor jumping into bed with Theodora. You’ll see why it raised a few eyebrows at the time of its release. Tamblyn is mostly a background player, a hard-drinking playboy who seems more interested in turning Hill House into his own private Playboy mansion rather than really getting to the bottom of anything substantial. When his fear claws its way to the surface at the end, he sure does make us feel it. The only one who I can honestly say is underused is Maxwell as John’s suspicious wife, Grace. Her character seems like it is only there to create more pandemonium but it sure is effective pandemonium. I just would have liked to see more of her.
I can’t praise The Haunting enough for showing us just how effective the tool of atmosphere can really be. Atmosphere is everything in a horror film and The Haunting has plenty to go around, that I can assure you. There is no doubt that the lengthy character development at the beginning is exhaustive but it pays off when the tragic climax freezes our blood. Wise adds another supernatural layer by the way he uses his camera throughout the course of the film. At one point, the camera zooms from the highest point of Hill House down to the face of Eleanor. Wise also twists and turns his camera while shooting the interior of the house, almost distorting it in small ways and making it seem otherworldly. Released in 1963, there is no doubt that the vague sexual repression and explicit lesbianism struck a chord with viewers. Intelligent and eloquent, The Haunting rightfully earns its spot among the horror elite. It dares to show us that very little can actually be quite a bit, something that more horror directors should pay attention to. Overall, The Haunting is one of the scariest, most unsettling films of the 1960s, one that rewards with multiple viewings and continues to terrify to this very day.
The Haunting is available on DVD.