The Changeling (1980)

Originally published October 13th, 2014

We’re pushing the blog’s boundaries time-wise, but with two studio era stars in the cast I can count it, right? Martin Scorsese and Alejandro Amenabar both cite The Changeling as the scariest movie of all time; Amenabar used quite a bit from this for his own haunted house throwback, The Others. Because so many other directors have mined the movie for its elements there’s nothing particularly frightening for the average horror fan, regardless of great performances by George C. Scott and Melvyn Douglas. However, The Changeling is a tense mystery/horror film taking the audience down a twisted path reliant on the horror to move along the mystery.

After losing his wife and daughter in a highway accident, pianist John Russell (Scott) moves into an old mansion in Washington. When a series of bizarre happenings start-up in the house it leads John to discover buried secrets hidden by a powerful senator (Douglas).

Director Peter Medak and screenwriter William Gray forge a divergence away from the standard horror films peppering the era. Where big stars like Gregory Peck were no long adverse to starring in horror features – if they were being made by a legit studio and for a decent budget, mind you – the scripts and direction had to give the actors something worthy of their talent. The Changeling skirts the boundaries of horror, and is more a mystery aided by a supernatural entity. John’s investigation into the Carmichael house and the family’s young son, Joseph, helps him get over his own loss. This does present a misleading title since the actual “changeling” has nothing to do with John’s tragedy as I expected, but the fascination lies in who the actual “changeling” is and why they were swapped.

With a little over ninety minutes of story there’s no time wasted. The opening briefly introduces us to Russell, his wife and daughter. After minor car trouble John goes to call a tow truck and watches his wife and daughter run down in the street. Why they didn’t run out-of-the-way instead of running into each others arms and dropping onto their backs is one element of campy acting. For the most part, John doesn’t spend much time flashing back to happier moments or seeing his wife and daughter everywhere. It’s a rather interesting element of turning the tragedy into a MacGuffin used to get John into the Carmichael mansion. On the opposite end of the spectrum, these two ladies are completely expendable, and by the midpoint of the film you’ll barely remember how depressed John is supposed to be, especially when he starts flirting with Claire Norman (Scott’s real-life wife, Trish Van Devere).

Those looking for constant scares will be bored by The Changeling. Sparsely laid throughout the film, the horror is reliant on atmosphere and simplicity, normal techniques employed in haunted house thrillers. If you’ve watched The Others (and I highly recommend it), some of the scenes are copied down, such as doors opening behind Russell. Other moments were liberally borrowed for Scary Movie 2 – yes, Scary Movie 2 is being referenced here – predominately the ball coming down the stairs. Obviously, the scare works in this, unlike Scary Movie 2. All of these small moments build up the tension throughout the film, leading to the big sequence involving Claire and a runaway wheelchair. This scene sounds funny on paper, but the way the camera races alongside the staircase, showing Claire as if we’re in the wheelchair with the unseen entity, injects us with an additional level of terror. These moments are few and far between, with a good portion of the film’s middle being the solving of the mystery.

The mystery gives us some great acting from two stars at the tail-end of their careers (Douglas in particular). It’s a poor comparison, but look at this alongside The Dunwich Horror. Both movies involve actors trying something new after the gap between their heyday and their present has widened significantly. Where Sandra Dee thought exploitation would give her career a shot in the arm, Scott and Douglas find a good script first, genre gimmick second. (Then again, gender plays a lot in this as well.) Scott’s role as a troubled husband coping with loss leaves him screaming and crying every now and again, but the moment where he listens to a séance on a tape recorder leaves you wondering if he’s succumbing to grief-induced psychosis. As the constant clicking of the knobs increases, going backward and replaying the same lines, Scott starts sweating. He’s obsessed, fully emerged in whatever this mystery is, and it’ll only be through death that he gives up. This emphasis on what we hope to be true about ourselves and the sheer determination that we’re on to something that’ll prove us sane is at the film’s core. Melvyn Douglas has a smaller role, but he’s just as steadfast in his belief that Russell is wrong; spoiling more about his character ruins the central twist of the narrative.

The Changeling presents a unique attempt at taking the horror film and inserting a classic murder mystery at its core. It won’t please those looking for fear around every corner, but the acting and the script are well-done, keeping the audience entranced as the ghostly entities surround them.

Ronnie Rating:

3Ronnis

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The Changeling

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4 thoughts on “The Changeling (1980)

  1. Hi Kristen,
    A very good choice and a true classic, even if you’re pushing time boundaries. As you say, folks who are used to non-stop scares in things like The Conjuring will find the pace slow, but the gradual and steady build-up of weird happenings and suspense is masterful. The cruelty of wealth and privilege revealed at the end is as scary as anything else in the movie.

  2. Pingback: Summer Under the Stars: Day 29 – George C. Scott |

  3. One of my favorite films! Had the pleasure of seeing a 35mm print last Halloween at The George Eastman Museum. Great write up! Good work 🙂

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