Striking the right note

An uneasy presence lurks within

Published: Dec 23 2018, 01:01:am

Thursday, March 27, 1980

THE CHANGELING. Written by William Gray and Diana Maddox, based on a story by Russell Hunter. Music by Rick Wilkins. Directed by Peter Medak. Running times: 106 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: some frightening scenes.
THE CHANGELING IS A mystery. Here is a tale that reveals itself in logical layers, shock by shock and clue by clue.
    The Changeling is a ghost story. There is a presence within. It is uneasy, perhaps sinister, most certainly supernatural. Unseen, except in flashes, it provides the film with its central focus.
    The Changeling is a winner. Last week [March 20, 1980], the Academy of Canadian Cinema showered Genie Awards upon it. Nominated in nine categories, the $6.6-million movie managed to scare up eight wins, including best picture.
    Its leading players, George C, Scott and his co-star/wife Trish Van Devere, collected the foreign actor and actress trophies. The film’s spare, straightforward script won the  adapted screenplay award for writers Diana Maddox and William Gray,
    Honoured for their contributions to the film's rich, atmospheric look were John Coquillon (cinematography) and Trevor Williams (art direction). Its aural effectiveness won a sound-editing Genie for Patrick Drummond, Dennis Drummond and Robert Grieve, and an overall sound prize for Joe Grimaldi, Austin Grimaldi and Dino Pigat.
    A quality production, The Changeling is one of the most unsettlingly effective occult thrillers to turn up since The Exorcist.  Unlike The Exorcist, though, this is a film in which the effect is based on the careful unfolding of a tightly constructed story.
    To reveal too much plotline would dilute a memorable film experience. What follows, then, are some random notes designed to tell you no more than you need to know.
*    *    *    
    John Russell (Scott) is bereaved. A successful composer, he’s seen his much-loved wife (Jean Marsh) and daughter (Michelle Martin) killed in a freak traffic accident.
    Numbed by shock and grief, he leaves New York to take a teaching post at his old alma mater, the University of Washington in Seattle. He rents a large, old house from the local historical society and attempts to throw himself into his work.
    Something in the house has other plans, Russell hears noises. He is drawn up the stairs and into a closet where he discovers a boarded-up door.
    He asks Claire Norman (Van Devere), an Historical Society volunteer,  “what is it in that house? What is it doing? Why is it trying to reach me?"
*    *    *    
    What will the Seattle critics make of The Changeling? They'll probably carp about the fact that a film that is supposedly set in their city was filmed almost entirely in Vancouver,
    What, then, will the Vancouver critics say?
    I guess we're expected to complain that if Vancouver is good enough to shoot in — locations such as The Orpheum Theatre, Gastown and the Hotel Europe, a Hudson Street mansion with a North Shore backdrop all look great — why wasn't the story set here?
    The answers are self-evident. Vancouver has all the native skills, talent and facilities (as well as the economic bonus of an 85¢ dollar) for professional feature filmmaking.
    Seattle,  and points south, is where the film will be most remuneratively marketed. American dollars at the box office are worth about $1.18 Cdn.
    Civic chagrin aside, the local film business should get a big boost from The Changeling. International trade professionals who never knew that there were film studios in Vancouver will be knocked out of their seats by Trevor Williams’s incredible, three-storey interior set, built and filmed on Panorama's No. 1 sound stage.
 *    *    *    
    At the Vogue Theatre, The Changeling can be heard in stereophonic sound. Given the film's Northwest coastal setting, filmgoers may be a little surprised at the amount of thunder enveloping them during the picture's storm sequences. Indeed, the filmmakers appear to have used up the region's natural quota of thunderclaps through to the year 2000.
 *    *    *    
    Hungarian-born director Peter Medak has a penchant for offbeat projects. Moody material such as 1972’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, the story of an English couple attempting to cope with a spastic child, and The Ruling Class (also 1972), an unhinged satire in which Peter O’Toole plays a crazy British lord, proved his skill with quirky themes.
    Unlike most foreign film directors hired by Canadian producers, Medak maintains his momentum — and reputation — with The Changeling. His actors responded by turning in a
good selection of solid, serious-minded performances.
 *    *    *    
    At first it looked as if The Changeling was in a release race with The Amityville Horror. Both films are, on the surface, old dark house pictures. Both were in production at around the same time.
    The Amityville Horror, starring Vancouver actress Margot Kidder, made it into the theatres first. Though its storyline was a shambles, it went for every cheap shot in the book and shocked its way into the record books as 1979’s fifth top-grossing film (with $35 million in U.S. and Canadian rentals).
    The Changeling is, quite simply, a better picture. Better written and better acted, its internal logic is consistent, its storyline far more original and its shocks more real and, ultimately, more effective and satisfying.
    When John Russell opens that hidden door, he discovers a set of narrow stairs leading up into the darkness. By this time, The Changeling has shifted mood from unsettling to downright scary.
     I know that I wouldn't have set foot on those stairs without a priest and a pair of very big policemen. Russell goes it alone and shows us just how much director Medak knows about tension building.
 *    *    *    
    Some people relieve tension by screaming; others use bad jokes. During the preview screening of The Changeling, there was a small group of yahoos who obviously spend too much time staring slack-jawed at their TV sets.
    When Toronto-born actor John Colicos came on the screen, there was a murmur of recognition. His face, seen along with that of one-time western villain Lee Van Cleef in a TV commercial, was familiar.
    Colicos, a performer with a long and distinguished list of stage and screen credits, plays Capt. DeWitt, a police officer who pays a visit on John Russell. DeWitt tells Russell that he wants to talk to him.
    "What about?" asks the composer.
    "Mufflers," yelled a half-wit from the balcony.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Then as now, actors supplemented their incomes with appearances in TV commercials. In 1980, John Colicos was featured in ads seen in both the U.S. and Canada for the Speedy Muffler King (Midas Muffler, in the U.S.) automobile service centres. He played the shop manager who lectures his employee, Lee Van Cleef, about the importance of their work.
    The Changeling achieved both critical and financial success. Made on a budget of $6.6 million, it earned a reported $53 million and is remembered by many classic horror movie fans as “a slow burning masterpiece.” Directors Martin Scorsese and Guillermo del Toro have both gone on record as fans of the film. It was the third feature produced by Canadian industry legend Garth Drabinsky, a man whose name was not mentioned in the above names-rich review.
    In 1976, Drabinsky, a Toronto entertainment lawyer, published Motion Pictures and the Arts in Canada: The Business and the Law, a 201-page book promoted as “the first comprehensive book” on its subject. He’s credited with finding the legal loophole that made a decade of tax-shelter filmmaking possible in Canada. In 1977, he made his debut as an independent movie producer with an Anglo-Canadian thriller called The Disappearance. Drabinsky collected his first best picture Canadian Film Award for his second feature, 1977’s The Silent Partner. After The Changeling, there’d be Genie nominations for his fourth and fifth features, 1980’s Tribute and The Amateur (1981).   
    Very much aware that distribution was the choke point for movies made in Canada, Drabinsky became involved in the exhibition business in 1979, co-founding Cineplex Theatres. He acquired control of the Odeon Theatre chain in 1984, which then became Cineplex Odeon, for a time a major player in the North American market. His story, worthy of book-length attention, includes a landmark court case that challenged the cozy duopoly of the Odeon and Famous Players theatre chains. The tale should also include his involvement with live theatre, the complex saga of his company Livent, its ambitious stage productions and legal problems that resulted in his conviction on fraud and forgery charges in Ontario. Sentenced to jail in 2009, Drabinsky served just over a year of his five-year sentence — including a month in the maximum-security Millhaven penitentiary — before he was granted day parole in 2012.
    I’m sure that a chapter could be devoted to his four-decade-long friendship with Christopher Plummer, who had starring roles in both The Silent Partner and The Amateur. The Canadian acting icon wrote a warmly-worded foreword to Drabinsky’s 1995 autobiography, Closer to the Sun, and penned a letter of support during his 2009 trial in Ontario Superior Court. In 2011, Plummer had the the title role in Barrymore, a feature film produced by Drabinsky just before his incarceration.
    Currently, Drabinsky is involved with California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre in producing (by “special arrangement”) the world premiere of Paradise Square: An American Musical. A Ragtime-like slice of immigrant history, it’s scheduled to open on December 27 (2018) and run until February 17.

See also: In 1980, The Changeling director Peter Medak sat down with me in Vancouver for an intervi