DVD Review: The Changeling

Ghostly wheelchairI remember seeing commercials when this movie came out in 1980. The featured image was of an empty wheelchair chasing someone down through a house, which my friends and I thought very funny and not at all scary.

This is a pity, since The Changeling is for the most part an effective, classic ghost story with a touch of post-Watergate conspiracy thrown in.

The movie starts with a happy family. A husband and wife (George C. Scott and Jean Marsh, who once played that less-happy couple, Edward Fairfax Rochester and Bertha Mason) and their little girl are pushing a paneled station wagon up a snowy country road in upstate New York.  In spite of the car’s breakdown in the middle of nowhere, everyone is laughing and joking.

When they reach a turn-off with one of those large wooden signs indicating the entrance to a State Park, the husband crosses the road to a phone booth on the other side to call for assistance. The wife and daughter engage in a playful snowball fight between the car and the sign.

Another car comes up the snow-covered road in one direction. A big truck appears in the other. The second car skids, and the truck swerves to avoid it–and crashes into the station wagon, propelling it into the sign.

The husband in the phone booth can only look on, horrified and helpless as the people most dear to him are killed.

Just over a year later, the man, whose name is John Russell, packs up everything in the apartment where he and his family used to live, and moves to Seattle. There, he tells his welcoming friends how long it took before he could believe that his wife and child were gone, and then he couldn’t stop saying “They’re gone” for several months more. It’s a heartbreaking but entirely convincing portrayal of overwhelming grief after a tragedy. The conversation also establishes that Russell is a well-known composer and an alumnus of the Seattle university where he’s accepted a position to teach advanced music theory.

His friends invite him to stay with them for as long as he likes, but Russell looks at their daughters, the elder of whom resembles his own recently deceased little girl, and gracefully declines. He says that he’d like to rent or buy a house for himself where he can work on his music. They suggest that he contact a friend of theirs at the local historical society.

Russell does so, and a woman from the historical society named Claire Norman (Trish van der Vere, who was married to Scott in real life) shows him a beautiful but neglected late-Victorian home called the Chessman House. No one has lived there in 12 years, but Claire thinks that it’s just the place for John Russell; there’s a music room with a piano.

Chessman HouseAs John removes the dust sheet over the piano to examine it, he asks, “What are the terms?”

The terms must’ve been be agreeable, since we cut from this question to a cleaning lady polishing the dining-room table, a handyman putting books on the study shelves, and John Russell playing his new piano.

Well, old piano. One of the keys sticks. But when he’s called away for a few minutes to deal with some business involving the house’s restoration to a habitable condition, the key depresses by itself, and an ominous, vibrating tone emanates from the piano.

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Kolchak: Firefall

I’ve always been fond of this episode, in spite of its flaws. It shows a certain originality in merging the phenomena of spontaneous human combustion with the ages-old myths and legends of the double spirit, fetch, or doppelganger; the only similar supernatural story I’ve seen occurred in the Dark Shadows Phoenix plotline. I  mentioned this episode when I reviewed that and wondered if both might’ve been written by the same person (they weren’t).

Crossing the hearseIt’s a bad idea to cut off a hearse en route to a funeral. That’s the lesson famed Chicago Symphony conductor Ryder Bond (Fred Beir) will learn after he does precisely this to avoid being late for a rehearsal at the very beginning of the episode. The spirit of the deceased man, a convicted arsonist and cheap hood with thwarted musical ambitions by the name of Frankie Markoff, decides that the life Bond is living is much better than the one he recently departed from in a hail of mob bullets. He sets about taking over Bond’s life.

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DVD Review: Dragonwyck

Dragonwyck

When I was 15, I was hit by a car while crossing the street on my way home from school. I spent several weeks in a cast and weeks more recovering afterwards, and which gave me a lot of time to read. My mother gave me a large paper shopping bag filled with romance novels, bought for a dime a piece at a garage sale. I read them all during those months after the accident, and even at that young age formed a general impression of romantic fiction that hasn’t changed much since. Most of these novels can be placed in one of three categories:

  1. The ones that want to be Pride and Prejudice. Usually set in Regency England.
  2. The ones that want to be Gone With the Wind, especially the part where Rhett carried Scarlett up the stairs. Often set against the sweeping backdrop of some major historical event. Bodices will be ripped.
  3. The ones that want to be Jane Eyre. May or not be historical, featuring a naive young woman who comes to a big and gloomy old house owned by a brooding older man with dark secrets. If the book cover features a woman in a white dress running away from said house, then it’s very likely one of these.

Dragonwyck falls into this last category. I haven’t read it since I was a teenager, but the 1944 novel by Anya Seton was an enormous success when it was first published. The film version followed in 1946 and was also a big hit, starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price.

Gene Tierney and Vincent PriceIt wasn’t the first time Tierney and Price had appeared in a major film together; she almost married him a couple of years earlier in the noir classic Laura but ended up with Dana Andrews instead. For the best really.

She should’ve avoided making the same mistake this time too. His character’s much worse in this film–it’s one of Price’s earliest villain roles and probably led to the shift from playing junior George-Sanders at Fox to becoming a horror icon at AIP.

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DVD Review: The Uninvited

I first saw this film in the early hours of a New Year’s day, when I was about 12. After spending the week after Christmas at my grandmother’s house, my family drove home on a snowy New Year’s Eve and got in in time to watch the usual Times Square midnight countdown on TV.

Mom and Dad went to bed right afterwards, but before my little sister and I could pack up the big Christmas box of Legos, the same TV station began to show a movie; its opening caught our attention.

We stayed up to watch the whole thing, and didn’t get much sleep afterwards.

The opening scene? A black and white shot of waves crashing on a ragged, rocky coastline, and Ray Milland’s voice saying:

“They call them the haunted shores, these stretches of Devonshire and Cornwall and Ireland which rear up against the westward ocean. Mists gather here, and sea fog, and eerie stories.  That’s not because there are most ghosts here than in other places, mind you–it’s just that people who live here are strangely aware of them. You see, day and night, year in, year out, they listen to the pound and stir of the waves. There’s life and death in that restless sound, and eternity too.  If you listen to it long enough, all your senses are sharpened. You come by strange instincts. You get to recognize the peculiar cold that’s the first warning, a cold which is no mere matter of degrees Fahrenheit, but a draining of warmth from the vital centers of the living.

“Local people tell me they would’ve felt it, even outside that locked door. We didn’t. They can’t understand why we didn’t know what it meant when our dog wouldn’t go up those stairs. Animals see the blasted things, it appears.

“Well, my sister Pamela and I knew nothing about such matters. Not then, we didn’t…”

The Uninvited ghost It takes stronger wills or much more sleepy heads than two little girls possessed that night to turn the TV off after such a tantalizing beginning.

I’m glad I had the chance to see it then; it’s not a movie that’s been widely shown. Before it came out on DVD a couple of years ago, I don’t think I’d seen it more than twice in the 40 years since that initial viewing. Unlike a lot of spooky movies I enjoyed in childhood, this one lives up to my first impression. It’s still a great ghost story with a ghost that still looks very good.

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Dark Shadows: How Quentin Died

A bottle of poison Barnabas Collins has been playing with an I Ching kit again in order to return to the 1960s and find out the circumstances of Quentin’s murder now that he knows the exact date of the event–September 10, 1897–but not who did it.

Unfortunately for Barnabas, Count Petofi has gotten on Edward Collins’s good side by promising to help him get Barnabas. In spite of the spells cast against him and his son, Edward still considers the family vampire to be his greatest enemy; I think he believes that Barnabas is responsible for that on top of everything else.

The Count even gives Edward a pistol loaded with silver bullets.

Edward finds Barnabas just as the latter has laid out the I Ching wands on a table in the basement of the old house and gone into a trance; his “astral projection” is about to make its way back to the future. Instead of shooting the vampire, however, Edward dashes the wands off the table.

In 1969, Barnabas’s body seated at what looks like the very same table, suddenly vanishes before the astonished eyes of Dr. Julia Hoffman and Professor Stokes. The two don’t know what’s happened, but Stokes is certain that Barnabas must be dead.
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Dark Shadows: Hand with a Mind of Its Own

The Hand haunts Collinwood!

When Quentin Collins first sees his old friend Evan Hanley hideously disfigured by an encounter with the Hand of Count Petofi, he doesn’t recognize him.

And when Barnabas and Magda tell him that they want to use the Hand to cure him, he’s even more reluctant to go near it than he was when they initially suggested that he allow that grisly object to touch him. What if the Hand does the same thing to him?

It is a tough choice. Which is worse: the risk of possibly permanent horrible physical disfigurement and mental damage, or going all wolfy 2 or 3 nights every month?

You’d think that Quentin would do anything to keep his handsome face from getting mucked up, but as the full moon rises he panics at the prospect of turning into a werewolf again and accepts the touch of the Hand.

It doesn’t appear to do anything; he transforms into a werewolf as usual and goes running around the Collinwood grounds. He menaces, but does not harm, Charity Trask.

These type of attacks have been going on for a few months and the local police are finally prepared to deal with the mysterious, well-dressed beast seen wandering the woods at night. They’ve put out leg-traps and Werewolf-Quentin obligingly steps into one and is captured. He’s taken to the Collinsport Gaol (the sign outside still spells it the British way) and put into a cell.

Edward Collins comes to see what man this creature will transform into in the morning. He doesn’t imagine that the werewolf is his own brother.
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DVD Review: The Signalman

On June 9, 1865, the boat train from Folkestone to London derailed. Among the passengers on that train were the famous novelist, Charles Dickens, accompanying his mistress, actress Ellen Ternan, and her mother. None of them were badly injured in the crash, but Dickens aided and helped tend to other injured passengers, some of whom died. The accident left him shaken and understandably reluctant to travel by train.

Smoke from the tunnel

This train crash and the Clayton Tunnel disaster of 1861 are attributed as the inspiration for Dickens’s ghost story, The Signal Man.

It’s surprising that the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas only used one of Dickens’s short stories, since he was the man who re-popularized the old Christmas ghosts tradition during the Victorian era. A Christmas Carol has been overdone to death in film and television, but Dickens did turn out other spooky pieces regularly at the holiday season–many of which are forgotten today.
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Dark Shadows: Ends of Old Plots

Alexandra Moltke has gone, but Victoria Winters hangs around for awhile in one form or another while her story and some other long-running plots are wound up.

Adam didn’t kill her when he stormed over to Collinwood after he saw that Eve was irretrievable lost, but instead kidnapped her from her bedroom to take her back to the lab. Since he also throttled Carolyn and knocked her down to the floor when she tried to defend her friend from him, I assume that romance is at an end.

The red-headed skeletonStrapping Vicky down on the gurney next to the skeleton wearing a red-headed wig that used to be his girlfriend, he zapped her a few times with the intent to torture her to death, but Barnabas put a stop to it in time by shooting Adam. They both know what killing Adam would mean for Barnabas, but Barnabas was willing to take the risk for Vicky’s sake.

Adam wasn’t killed either, but fled from the old house and sought refuge with Professor Stokes. In spite of everything he’s been up to lately, the professor tended to his gunshot wound and hid him in a back bedroom. That was about a month ago by the show’s air dates, and he hasn’t been seen since. Since Barnabas didn’t revert to vampirism, I assume Adam’s still alive.

Angelique also disappeared for a long period after Nicholas was summoned back to Hell by their satanic boss.

Jeff Clark, who had been arrested for the murder of Eve, was released once Roger Collins provided him with an alibi. (“It’s all right, officer. He was with me at the time, up at the cemetery digging up a 180-year-old grave. Why? Well, that’s a long story…” We don’t actually see Roger say this, but the idea of it made me laugh so hard I frightened the cats.)

Vicky married Jeff, but they only got as far as sipping champagne on their wedding night before the past overwhelmed him and he was drawn back into his previous existence, disappearing before her eyes in a very bad blue-screen effect.

For some time afterward, Vicky insisted that she could sense his presence around her, as if he were trying to contact her. Her friends of course thought this was only wishful thinking and delusion. Barnabas even proposed to her again on the expectation that they’d seen the last of Jeff/Peter… but then he popped in again that same night and Vicky went with her true love back into the past. Which upset Barnabas and Elizabeth Stoddard-Collins, who were there to witness this event.
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DVD Review: Number 13

This is the last of the M.R. James-based Ghost Stories for Christmas in my DVD set; it aired on the BBC in 2006.

It’s the story of a haunted inn. During the day, rooms Number 12 and 14 sit next to each other, spacious with 3 windows overlooking the street. At night, in the dark, the rooms appear somewhat smaller and it takes the occupant a little time to observe that one of their windows is missing. If he happens to go down the corridor during the night, he may also notice that there is a door marked 13 halfway between 12 and 14, and the occupant of 13 seems to exhibit some very strange behaviors.

You can find the story on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX06.htm.

It’s one of my favorite M.R. James stories, amusing as well as interesting for the spacial dynamics of its haunted place. Even though it’s the last one I’m reviewing from the DVD set, it was the first one I watched when the package arrived.

The most obvious, immediate difference between the written and television versions is that the setting has been altered. James’s story is set in the Jutland town of Viborg, in Denmark. The BBC version has been relocated to an unspecified cathedral town supposedly in East Anglia (although I think the cathedral shown is actually Winchester; Old Stumpy is fairly recognizable, as cathedrals go).

The Golden Lion inn

Wherever it is, the old inn looks charming as our protagonist arrives in a horse-drawn carriage.

The gentleman’s name is Professor Anderson (Greg Wise), and the first thing we perceive about his character is that he’s a supercilious jerk, snubbing the innkeeper (David Burke, last seen in A View from a Hill) almost as soon as he’s in the front door. After the porter drags his large and heavy portmanteau up two flights of stairs, Anderson declares that it’s too high up. Can’t he have a room on the lower floor? The innkeeper is happy to oblige, so thump, thump, thump, the heavy baggage gets dragged back downstairs. The porter looks as if he already knows this guy isn’t going to give him a decent tip.

Anderson looks into a couple of rooms and decides on 12 as the one that will best suit his needs. He doesn’t care about a view of the cathedral; he just wants a quiet place to sleep and work.

It’s a lovely room, with old-fashioned oak paneling, a bow window on either side of a large fireplace, and a comfortably sized bed with white curtains.

The Garden of Earthly Delights--just the thing for your hotel room! The one odd thing about the room is the painting hanging on the far wall next to the bed. Would a late-Victorian hotel in a provincial town really put up a copy of the middle panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights?

The porter doesn’t get any tip; the innkeeper Mr Gunton sends him away as soon as the portmanteau is disposed of on a luggage rack against the same wall and delicately asks Anderson if he wouldn’t mind paying in advance. Some previous occupants of this room, apparently respectable people, have left without settling their bills. Mr Gunton particularly mentions a university man, just like the professor, named Entwistle who disappeared one night.

Anderson grumbles, but he pays.

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DVD Review: A View from a Hill

The BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series had petered out by the end of the 1970s. They ceased to use the works of M.R. James as a basis for their story adaptations, instead turning to other classic authors such as Dickens or new and independent works, with varying degrees of success. Some of these are in the DVD set I purchased this spring and I may or may not deal with them later.

After a long lapse, the BBC returned to M.R. James this past decade. In 2005, their first new adaptation was based on a short story titled A View from a Hill. This is a story of James’s that I’d never read before seeing this television version. It’s not in the anthology under my pillow, nor on the Gaslight site. I have found it online in a couple of places and read it since then; for example, it’s on the Thin Ghost site at
http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/162.

Basically, it’s the story of a pair of binoculars that allow the person looking through them to see things such as old buildings that were there long ago in the past. But the way the binoculars were constructed means that there is a price to pay for this vision.

The BBC version begins with a young man (an actor I don’t know named Mark Letheren) standing on the platform of a tiny rural railway stop on a lovely autumn afternoon, and looking impatient. It’s not a delayed train he’s waiting for, but the person who was supposed to come and pick him up.

After awhile, he gives up. Fortunately, he has his bicycle with him; unfortunately, his bag falls off the back onto the road and he has to retrieve it.

When he arrives at the house where he thinks he’s expected, it’s a large and grand old place but looks neglected and perhaps even empty. No–there are two people living here: the last Squire, Mr. Richards, and his elderly family retainer, Patten (Pip Torrens and David Burke respectively, two actors I know fairly well).

Mr. Richards is astonished to see the young man, who introduces himself as “Fanshawe. I’m here about the collection.”

Fanshaw tries on a skull“That’s next week,” says the squire.

“This week. I’m here.”

“So I see.”

Both Richards and his manservant are a hoot in their different ways. Neither seems entirely in touch with reality, but Richards has more funny lines.

Fanshawe is shown to his room. While unpacking and meticulously putting his belongings away, he discovers that his binoculars have been broken.
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