The Changeling (1980)

Most movie nerds participate in some kind of annual ritual every October, whether it be attempting to cram in (at least) 31 new-to-them horror films over the course of the month or just slightly, generally shifting their viewing habits towards #spookycontent. My own personal project this year was to clear out my stack of unwatched horror DVD & Blu-ray purchases that have been gathering dust since last Shocktober, something I unexpectedly accomplished halfway into the month. That kind of single-genre overload can be a fun, celebratory way to commemorate one of the calendar’s best holidays (second only to Mardi Gras), but it also has a way of flattening the distinguishing details of individual titles. Catching up with a somber, stylistically restrained classic during these annual horror binges is always somewhat risky, as they’re often drowned out by the zanier, more attention-grabbing films you bookend them with. All of that is to say that I finally watched the beloved ghost story The Changeling this month and I did not get much out of the experience. Despite its reputation, I found it merely okay.

A lonely music professor—played with a severe grimace by George C. Scott—grieves a recent tragedy in his family by renting out an Old Dark House near the university where he works and haunting its hallways all by his lonesome. While sulking around this echoing, dusty Gothic palace, he uncovers another familial tragedy from decades past: the murder of a young disabled boy whose ghost becomes his roommate and partner in crime. The professor may not be able to heal the wounds of the abrupt tragedy that wrecked his own family life, but he can at least distract himself from the pain by pursuing justice for this drowned ghost-boy. The resulting vigilante mission is one of somber self-reflection and unexpected political intrigue, pitting the pitiful old man against corrupt politicians and the even more intimidating biddies of The Historical Preservation Society. A few haunting images of underwater phantasma, flaming staircases, and animated wheelchairs occasionally cut through the oppressively quiet, lonely misery that hangs over the house, but for the most part everything remains excessively morbid & low-key.

The other canonized title that The Changeling reminded me of the most was The Exorcist. That may read as a high compliment, but what I mean is that I found it an admirable drama but a boring horror film, unable to see the Exquisite Classic it is in others’ eyes. Weirdly enough, I do get a huge kick out of The Exorcist III, which also stars George C Scott. Go figure. It’s possible that had I seen The Changeling outside of the annual cram-session horror binge of Shocktober rituals, it might have made more of an impact. However, I can’t make too many excuses for it in that context, considering that my favorite new-to-me discovery this month was the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which isn’t exactly a gag-a-minute riot. Regardless, The Changeling is a film I can’t muster much enthusiasm for outside discussing it in terms of this year’s Halloween season viewing docket. In that spirit, here’s a picture of what my to-watch stack looked like at the start of the season and a best-to-worst ranked list of how much I enjoyed each title.

  1. The Haunting (1963)
  2. The Descent (2005)
  3. Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)
  4. Millennium (1989)
  5. Limbo (1991)
  6. The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)
  7. The Strangler of the Swamp (1946)
  8. Pacific Heights (1990)
  9. Pumpkinhead (1988)
  10. Holy Virgin Vs. The Evil Dead (1991)
  11. Body Snatchers (1993)
  12. The Changeling (1980)

-Brandon Ledet

The Haunting (1963)

The 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is, in a word, a masterpiece. Even with its sterling reputation preceding it, I was shocked to immediately recognize it as such, as its genre and its source material are so overly familiar half a century later that I assumed I’d be numb to its wonders. Jackson’s novel has been both directly adapted and mined for indirect inspiration so many times over that I was skeptical there was anything left to discover in its pages. This MGM-distributed realization of that well-tread source material is also a by-the-books participation in the Old Dark House tradition that was intensely oversaturated in its own era even beyond adaptations of Jackson’s work. And yet I was impressed, captivated, and chilled from start to end – even more reenergized by this traditionalist approach to Jackson’s milieu than I was by Josephine Decker’s revisionist biopic Shirley earlier this year, something I did not at all expect.

It helps that former Val Lewton-collaborator Robert Wise directs the absolute shit out of this movie. The Haunting is shot in early Panavision on what had to be intimidatingly clunky equipment, but you wouldn’t know that judging by how incredibly active the camera is. Even in the opening sequence that explains the history of how the central haunted house “was born bad”, Wise pummels the audience with overachieving visuals. The camera swoops in ghostly, seemingly handheld maneuvers. It tumbles down the stairs in dizzying thuds. It emphasizes its format’s already drastically wide aspect ratio with fish-eye lenses out of a 1990s skateboarding video, drinking in as much ornate detail of the haunted house set as it can possibly cram down its gullet. Much of the in-the-moment action of The Haunting consists of people calmly talking in chilly, hollow rooms, but the film’s visual language is explosively alive throughout – matching the way the environment itself is quiet but teeming with ghosts.

I’m surprised this film isn’t brought up more often when people are heaping praise on classics like Psycho & Carnival of Souls in particular. It could be that its bulked-up budget scale obscures the common ground it shares with those leaner works, but it achieves a similarly eerie mood, especially in mapping out the inner life of its central, doomed protagonist, Eleanore. In a lot of ways, The Haunting is a seduction story. Eleanore is wooed by Hill House both in a romantic sense (its ghosts often play matchmaker between her and other visiting guests of various genders & vital stats) and in a residential sense. She begins the film haunted by her own mediocrity and her lack of a place in the world—dismissed by everyone around her (give or take her lesbian roommate) as a nervous, difficult woman—but the house accepts her flaws and all, beckoning for her to become a permanent fixture among the resident ghosts. It’s an unusually internal, intangible struggle for a genre built around haunted house scares – a delicate, elegant approach to horror that matches the care Wise takes with the film’s visual delights.

The Haunting is impressively smart, funny, and direct about even its touchiest themes (lesbian desire, generational depression, suicidal ideation) while remaining consistently gorgeous & creepy throughout. I’d be shocked to learn that there’s a more effectively scary G-rated horror film out there; and if there were, I doubt it’s this visually imaginative or exquisitely staged. This is clearly the pinnacle of the Old Dark House tradition. The only question is how many other Best Of __ horror lists it belongs at the top of.

-Brandon Ledet

Nostalgia Check: Tim Curry is Clue (1985)’s Overworked, Undervalued MVP

Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleasing ensemble cast whodunnit Knives Out is proving to have a surprisingly substantial box office presence. The murder mystery Old Dark House throwback with a large cast of celebrity players is a time-honored Hollywood tradition, but it’s not one that always translates to commercial success. Consider, for instance, the 1985 John Landis-penned whodunit spoof Clue, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the eponymous board game. While Clue has gradually earned cult classic status over decades of television broadcasts, it first arrived in American theaters as a financial flop. That’s difficult to fathom in retrospect, as its TV broadcast familiarity throughout my life has always framed it in my mind as a beloved, popular classic. It turns out its financial & cultural impact aren’t the only aspects of Clue that had been altered through the faulty lens of my own memory either. Through time, I’ve lost track of exactly how funny this film is and who in the cast is responsible for its biggest laughs.

Given the presence of comedic heavyweights like Landis, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Tim Curry, it’s easy to misremember Clue as a nonstop laugh riot. The collective charms of its cast does make the film eternally pleasant to revisit, but its laugh-to-joke ratio is disappointingly low. In recent years, I’ve come to think of Clue as a less-funny Murder By Death (which admittedly does have its own problems, mostly due to Peter Sellers’s yellowface performance as a Charlie Chan archetype), just with an updated-for-the-80s cast. Clue‘s sense of humor is a paradoxically low-energy offshoot of ZAZ spoofery, in which the genre-homage slapstick is plentiful but arrives at an unrushed pace. The biggest knee-slapper laugh lines come from mainstay Mel Brooks collaborator Madeline Kahn, whose “flames on the side of my face” & “It’s a matter of life after death; now that he’s dead I have a life” zingers have transformed the murderous widow character into a hall-of-fame meme. However, her presence is too sparsely doled out to carry the film on its own. To match the ZAZ-level energy needed to keep this genre spoof lively, Clue needed a much louder, more frantic MVP.

As the deceptive butler of the Old Dark House who gathers a group of high-profile strangers as dinner party guests to reveal that they’re all being blackmailed by the same soon-to-die rapscallion (the amusingly named Mr. Body), Curry has the fairly thankless role of constantly explaining the situation at hand. While the rest of the cast can rest on the charm of their personalities & Old Hollywood noir costuming, Curry is constantly doing the labor of providing direction & purpose for the proceedings. The true comic genius of Clue is in watching how that role escalates into total delirium as the bodies pile up and the party descends into chaos. By the final half hour of the film, Curry is soaked in flop sweat as he frantically runs around the house, dragging the rest of the cast behind him and explaining at length What’s Really Going On Here. In bewildering rapid-fire line deliveries & breathless monologue, Curry re-explains the entire plot of the film from the very first scene to the revelation of who among the suspects killed Mr. Body. It’s an absurd spectacle of physical comedic acting, one that only becomes funnier the longer it stretches on — driving Curry into a blissful mania that hasn’t been given nearly as much credit for its accomplishments as Kahn’s laidback zingers.

I don’t mean to downplay the pure pleasure of Madeline Kahn’s magnificent presence in Clue. I just find it bizarre that her cultural impact has been outshining what Tim Curry acheives in the film, when he does so much more heavy-lifting in keeping the film memorably funny. For instance, Kahn’s .gif-famous “flames on the side of my face” zinger is only included in one of the film’s three alternate endings, which you might not even see if you allow your DVD player to choose an ending at random. Meanwhile, Curry’s deranged flop sweat explanation of What’s Really Going On here is a substantial anchor in all three alternate endings, so that he’s literally doing triple the work of the rest of the cast. As so much of Clue’s legacy is built on nostalgia—both in its 1950s Agatha Christie throwback aesthetic and its 1990s television broadcast repetition—the frantic spectacle of this performance is just yet another element at play that deserves re-evaluation in a nostalgia check. The movie may not be as energetically silly, commercially successful, or Madeline Kahn-heavy as it’s misremembered to be, but Tim Curry sure does his damnedest to make up for any & all of its shortcomings all on his own, practically turning an ensemble-cast comedy into a one-man show.

-Brandon Ledet

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

three star

One year after the Art Deco silent horror masterwork The Bat made the jump from stage to screen, Universal Studios got their feet wet in the horror game with an adaptation of a very similar play, The Cat and the Canary. Along with the much lesser trifle Midnight Faces, The Bat & The Cat and the Canary combined to establish what would become a very popular subgenre of early horror: the “old dark house.” In the “old dark house” story, guests at an ancient, spooky mansion are terrorized by seemingly supernatural events & a mysterious killer. At the story’s natural end the killer’s identity is revealed and all of the preceding supernatural events are explained to be their doing. This was a very popular murder mystery/horror plot form the 30s throughout the 50s until the murder mystery aspect was dropped & the supernatural elements were played up & developed into the “haunted house” genre. By the 1970s & onward the “old dark house” plot was spoof fodder for properties like Murder by Death, Clue, and Scooby-Doo, but in the 1920s it played remarkably fresh, with The Cat and The Canary standing as a prime example of the horror genre’s merits as an artform. Unfortunately, in retrospect the film feels a lot less special & a little more flawed than it did to the audiences it floored in 1927, especially with the towering presence of The Bat casting its shadow over the ordeal.

A wealthy eccentric on his death bed bemoans the fact that his family hungers after his money like a gang of cats circling a caged canary. In order to fight them off, he sets the reading of his will 20 years into the future, when the family returns to learn that the money has been willed to his most distant relative. There is then a conspiracy to drive this distant relative insane as a means to strip them of their newfound wealth due to incompetence. In the meantime anyone foolish enough to get in the way is mysteriously murdered and, because the mansion setting is so very spooky, their deaths are blamed on “ghosts.” The Cat and the Canary boasts a very straightforward plot structure that calls a lot of attention to its stage play origins, but what the film lacks in a unique narrative, director Paul Leni makes up for in pure atmosphere. The German Expressionist filmmaker brings an incredible eye for visual play to the big screen, a bridge between art house Europe & the more rigid spectacle of Old Hollywood that I believe would guide the heights of Universal horror productions for decades to come. Leni unlocks the silliness of the film’s stage play origins and allows the camera to move in subtly haunting ways, as if exploring a crime scene with a flashlight (quite literally in an early moment). He also relies heavily on German Expressionism’s penchant for drastic lighting & dreamlike imagery. Gigantic cats & medicine bottles tower over a dying man. Overlaid images like a doorknocker, an envelope, and a gloved hand shift large in perspective, foreshadowing the deep focus technique Citizen Kane would pioneer in the early 40s. Just examining gorgeous, isolated frames of the film, it’s no wonder that The Cat and the Canary was known as the definitive  & haunted house movie,  inspiring no less than five other feature film adaptations of the same play & influencing horror giants like Alfred Hitchcock with its visual style.

The problem with The Cat and the Canary is a fairly common one with old school horror productions. It’s actually the sole reason I had to knock a half-star off my rating for the otherwise flawless The Bat. In order to soften the cruel blow of the film’s supernatural (and potentially blasphemous) terrors, old fashioned horror was often mixed with hokey yuck-em-up comedy, particularly in American productions. In The Bat, a dopey, dim-witted maid makes an ass out of herself by continually mis-guessing the true identity of The Bat. In Midnight Faces, the “old dark house” genre’s other founding father, the comedy takes the ugly form of racial caricature in a scaredy cat black sidekick. The Cat and the Canary, unfortunately, stretches the comedy element across as many characters as it can, turning what is otherwise a beautifully-constructed art film into a painfully hokey farce. Now-tired gags like a scared character stuttering, “G-g-g-g-ghosts!” & incomprehensible relics like, “It’s about time you climbed on the milk wagon,” (what?) drag a lot of what makes The Cat and the Canary special down into the depths of eyeroll-worthy comedic tedium and it’s honestly a damn shame.

There’s certain old-world cheese that I can forgive given this film’s ancient release date, such as the way it hammers home the central cat & canary metaphor that gives it a title over, I believe, three separate repetitions. That I can live with. The way the film’s hokey comedy routines drain the blood out of its supernatural horror, however, is a true bummer. The Cat and the Canary is ultimately a film at war with itself. As a cornerstone of what American horror would come to look like in it wake, the film is an indispensable artifact and an occasionally breathtaking one at that. It’s also a failed comedy, though, which is up there with the most difficult kinds of films out there to enjoy. This is a problem made even worse by the fact that it’s bested by The Bat in every single possible regard, especially in the look of its central killer antagonist, which is not at all catlike in his visage in comparison to the other film’s humanoid creature. The result is a flawed work that I admired, but also found a little disappointing. I hope somewhere else in Paul Leni’s career there was a film that made proper use of his stunning cinematic eye without cheapening it with broad humor.

-Brandon Ledet

Midnight Faces (1926)

EPSON MFP image

twostar

I may have finally hit a wall with these silent horror quickies I’ve been devouring lately. It was foolish to think that all of these early, spooky titles were going to be anywhere near as great as the glorious heights of The Phantom Carriage or A Page of Madness and Midnight Faces was a solid reminder that bad movies have existed as long as movies have existed. Weirder yet, it seemed to suggest that the Asylum-style knockoff has been around for nearly a century, not just the last ten years. I’m not sure if Midnight Faces qualifies as the world’s first mockbuster, but it does heavily crib from the early horror masterpiece The Bat, siphoning off some of that film’s box office dollars mere weeks after its initial debut, a guaranteed success due to the immense popularity of its stage play source material. Like all mockbusters, Midnight Faces is a mostly lifeless imitation of the real deal, but you’ll be hard pressed to find an example of the format this oppressively dull or blatantly, needlessly racist.

When people speak favorable of Midnight Faces, it’s listed alongside The Bat & the silent era The Cat & The Canary as a pioneer of the “old dark horse” genre. The “old dark horse” plot is exactly what its moniker suggests: a horror or mystery plot about a spooky old house in which some kind of creepy phantom terrorizes the newest inhabitants. For newer examples of the genre think of Housebound or The Boy. Midnight Faces shakes up  the superficial details of its setting just enough to distinguish itself, placing its creepy house in a Florida swamp & setting a lot of its action in the daylight (something I’m certainly not used to in a lot of these shadow-saturated old horrors). Although you’re not going to see someone canoeing in a sunlit swamp in The Bat, however, the rest of the details are mostly the same here, just less interesting. Instead of dressing up like a giant bat, the “phantom figure” of Midnight Faces sports a fairly pedestrian hat & cape combo. Instead of scaling art deco architecture & defying gravity, he hides using a series of trap doors & secret rooms. His identity is a mystery, but there’s no fun in unpacking it, since the film is instead convinced that it is, in fact, a comedy, not a sincere mystery.

Here’s where things get racist. Midnight Faces softens its supposedly harrowing mystery plot (which is racist in its own way, given its penchant for yellow face and its othering version of “Orientalism”) with the comedy stylings of a butler named Trohelius Snapp. A black servant & a direct precursor to the Birmingham Brown character of the 1930s Charlie Chan mysteries, Trohelius is is portrayed as an eternal scaredy cat (a role filled by a cowardly maid in The Bat). Terrified of cats, parrots, his own shadow, and the absence of light, Trohelius is a continuous wide-eyed punchline to a joke that is cruelly unfunny in a modern context. Most of his dialogue is variation on explaining that he is terrified: “Boss, my nerves departed an hour ago.” “Boss, I can feel lilies sprouting in my hand.” “Oh, Lawdy Lawdy — I wish I was back in the basement wid mah mop & broom.” Each gag gets more & more painful to sit through, especially once you realize embarrassing the poor character is a much higher priority than constructing a decent mystery. I guess it’s a little commendable that they actually cast a black actor in the role instead of a painted-up white guy (which is more than I can say for the 1925 The Lost World), but there’s little consolation in that distinction.

I don’t mean to imply that there’s zero artistic merit to Midnight Faces. I can see enough at play in its visual language that I’d get how someone could defend it. The film’s use of shadows is especially striking, especially in the way it implies that mysterious “phantom figure’s” shadow can touch or harm the physical world. I also enjoyed moment where a strange house guest is spying on the heir to the spooky mansion while a suspicious maid spies on her from a staircase and the phantom spies on them all from a secret chamber. These respectable flourishes are few & far between, though, and the film relies way too heavily on “comedic” racism & shot-for-shot repetition of its better imagery to carry even a 53 minute runtime. So much of what transpires here is old hat (a damsel in distress!)  & lazily spelled-out (“What a mysterious place — It gives me the shivers,” “This place has a graveyard smell,”) for it to stand out on its own in any significant way. Midnight Faces may have stood side-by-side with The Bat as a starting point for where the “old dark house” genre would eventually go, but without much detail to distinguish it from that far-superior work, it’s mostly memorable for its lazy repetition & for its embarrassing reliance on racist comedy routines. That’s far from a prestigious position to be in, even for a 9o year old feature film horror that clocks in at under an hour in length.

-Brandon Ledet