The Changeling (1980)

Fall is most definitely in the air and there’s no better way to enjoy the changing of the seasons than by settling in with a glass of wine and a good scary movie. 1980’s gloomy supernatural thriller, The Changeling (not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s recent underrated period piece, Changeling), fits the bill perfectly. I’m a big fan of late-70s/early-80s horror so it’s somewhat surprising it’s taken me so long to cross this one off the list. It’s not quite what I’d call a great movie, but it does everything a good genre piece should: it takes its subject matter seriously, builds methodically, and delivers a thorough if somewhat dated climax. Plus, George C. Scott! He may be best remembered for his roles in Patton and Dr. Strangelove, but his impressive turn as a devastated father and husband in The Changeling is every bit as good and not to be missed.

The story: John Russell (Scott) and his beautiful family are just way to happy for the opening scene of a movie like this. Sure enough, all that bliss turns to horror on a snowy road under the wheels of a swerving truck. Four months later, Russell, a successful composer, packs up his life and heads to Seattle to start over. Some colleagues offer him their guest room but he opts for a place of his own. “I have a friend at the historical preservation society. They have some old houses that I’m sure they rent,” offers one well-intentioned friend. Okay, just make sure you pick the oldest, most ominous-looking one they have.

30,000 square feet, in need of major repairs, impossible to heat...the perfect place for a single guy on his own.

Russell settles on a huge, secluded mansion, now all but overrun by unchecked ivy and shrubbery after standing unoccupied for the last dozen years. There’s a caretaker (who clearly should be fired or at least forced to re-read his job description), a part-time maid, and little else to bother Russell as he works on new material…except for the angry poltergeist haunting the place. Soon Russell finds his invisible roommate has an annoying habit of moving things around, flooding bathrooms, and breaking windows, which would account for the reasonable rent.

Things get stranger and more intense, but the inquisitive Russell, who is braver than me by a factor approaching infinity, comes to suspect the house may not just be trying to scare him off. It may be trying to send him a very different message altogether.

Twenty empty bedrooms and you pick the secret one with the padlock and cobwebs.

Biggest letdown: I mentioned that the climax feels a bit dated and, unsurprisingly, many other elements are cliché by today’s standards. Perhaps the most egregious of which is the use of a séance as one-stop shopping for easy exposition. The endeavor is carried off with class and dignity, but for a movie that takes great pains to establish and justify every story element, this scene is way too convenient. It’s made all the worse because Russell locates the medium by making a trip to a science building and meeting with a thickly accented science guy in a white lab coat. I almost would have preferred seeing him look up “psychics” in the phone book rather than watching an otherwise decent movie half-assedly mining stock scientific trappings for credibility.

I'm trying to take this séance thing seriously, but the giant silver dildo is making it hard.

Why you should watch: Scott is phenomenal and the solid supporting cast doesn’t suffer much by comparison. No time is wasted trying to convince disbelievers, which is a fine choice. A sensible person in Russell’s situation would instantly recognize that he’d never convince others of something so outrageous if they hadn’t seen it for themselves. The grieving widower angle is excellent as well. Russell has already suffered horror far worse than anything from beyond the grave could inflict, which deftly explains why no previous occupant managed to stick around long enough to decipher the house’s riddle.

Also, you can’t deny the influence of this movie on the litany of restless spirit-with-a-message movies, especially Ringu and its progeny. Without getting into too much spoilerific detail, let’s just say Ringu owes so much to this movie, someone should have been sued.

If my parents' piano had been haunted, I might have practiced more.

Memorable Moment: Early on, Russell is idly working on the piano in the house’s music room. (I love that there’s a separate room just for the piano. In my house, the music room is the same place as the living room, dining room, bike room, home office and kitchen.) He notices one key makes no sound, just before he’s called away by the maid. He leaves the room but the camera remains focused on the piano. It slowly zooms in on that key, which startlingly sounds all on its own. And even though I just told you exactly what would happen, I dare you not to jump.

Choice quote: “That house isn’t fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.”

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3 Responses to “The Changeling (1980)”

  1. […] The Changeling – General Patton ain’t afraid of no ghosts. […]

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