The Changeling (1980) Review
How did you die, Joseph? Did you die in this house? Why do you remain?
I’ve been wanting to give fans and casual readers of CCS (Cheshire Cat Studios) something ‘special’ this Halloween season, and yet I believe that the purpose of reviewing POPULAR horror movies that have been out for years defeats the purpose of a review. Seriously, what is the purpose of adding another review of great classic horror movies, such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (not the crappy 2010 remake) to the fray when almost everyone and their mother has seen it? I feel that the purpose of a review is to either be timely and be an aid towards people’s entertainment decision making, or to comment on something so far off the radar that it deserves a second look. That is also the purpose of our modest “Obscure Movie Month” reviews which we’ve been trying to keep as a new tradition every year around autumn. This year’s “Obscure Movie Month” migrated from the month of August to October, which not only falls upon the holiday of Halloween, but also the October Anniversary of the founding of CheshireCatStudios.com. So, to mark this special occasion, I’ve dug up one of my favorite, lesser-known horror movies as both a Halloween treat, and my final contribution to “Obscure Movie Month 2011”. Enjoy.
The Changeling (1980) Trailer
The Changeling (not to be confused with the Angelina Jolie movie of the same name and directed by Clint Eastwood) is probably one of the most unsettling horror movies ever made. There’s many breeds of horror, from slasher flicks and torture porn where the horror is the visual mutilation of teenagers by power tools and kitchen utensils, to suspense movies where you know something is going to happen and the terror is in the wait, to ‘twist’ movies that manages to screw with your head in the last few minutes of the film. However, the best way to summarize The Changeling is to describe it as an atmospheric horror that doesn’t rely on jump scares to frighten an audience, but instead chills you to the core through sound effects, unsettling cinematography, and a haunting nuance. That’s not to say that The Changeling doesn’t have one or two jump scares, or a very modest amount of violence, but it relies on neither to tell the horrifying tale of a recent widower moving into a large house whose rock-bottom price includes an eerie history.
Set in the early 1980’s, The Changeling stars George C. Scott (Patton, Dr. Strangelove) as John Russell, a college professor of the musical arts, a composer, and a widower who watched as his wife and daughter were killed in a horrific car accident on a snowy pass. John Russell is trying to piece together the broken bits of his life and move away from his empty home and into an enormous turn of the century house. The house is perfect for John; it’s elegant, it’s large, and it’s quiet enough for him to focus on composing his music and to reflect on his loss.
But John Russell is not alone in his new house. In the beginning the disturbances in the house start very minute, with doors swinging open by themselves, and continue to build with a hollow deafening droning coming from the house’s plumbing. As John continues to investigate the sources of the noises, the disturbances become increasingly direct, and John becomes convinced that there’s a ghostly presence in his new home when his deceased daughter’s rubber ball continues to bounce down the stairway, even after John had thrown it into the river. John turns his focus away from his grief and his music and towards uncovering the truth behind his home’s sordid history, researching old records and going as far as hiring a psychic to conduct a seance. The tragically horrific tale of the murder of a young boy, Joseph, is slowly revealed, and John works to set things right and put the spirit of Joseph to rest.
I remember the first time I’d watched The Changeling. My friend from Seattle, Steve C., pointed me to it around the Halloween of 2005, telling me that it’s one of the few horror movies he can admit to being freaked out about, and even six years after my first viewing of The Changeling, I can still agree with him. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, searching for what I consider ‘genuine horror’, something that can scare me to the core without being graphically violent or relying on cheap scares to make me jump in my seat. No, what I enjoy is the suspenseful and atmospheric horror that makes you squirm in your seat because the film itself creates a haunting ambiance through use of clever camera work, eerie sounds, and a cast of actors that help make the film engrossing.
The most chilling scenes of The Changeling revolve around the seance and John Russell’s audio recording of the seance via an old studio-grade tape recorder. Don’t worry about my spoiling the seance scene, because it’s actually impossible to spoil the deeply unnerving atmosphere it creates as you watch the entranced psychic medium scribbling down Joseph’s answers to her questions with increasing ferocity. And although the scene is EXTREMELY intense and unsettling, you get the feeling that while John Russell is clearly shaken, he is still mildly skeptical about the psychic… until he replays the audio recording of the seance in which he hears a child’s voice answering the psychic’s questions, and revealing the whole sordid tale behind his untimely and foul death.
“…house… my room… father…”
The acting in The Changeling is some of the best I’ve ever seen in any given horror movie largely because this isn’t a tale about sluts, jocks, and pot heads having Scooby Doo encounters with the paranormal. No, these are mature adults coping and learning about a haunting and taking far more logical approaches towards understanding not only what is happening, but also how to appease the spirit that haunts the house and solve a mystery. It offers the viewer more than “Zoiks! Let’s get out of here!” moments, and gives the actors and actresses more room to actually ACT and become the deep, sympathetic characters that you actually want to see triumph, rather than spook, ghoul and slasher fodder that plague most horror films.
Spearheading The Changeling is the late George C. Scott, best known for his immortal portrayal of World War II General George S. Patton. But instead of a strong, confident man, George C. Scott’s character is that of a grieving music professor, John Russell. George C. Scott is one of the most talented actors to ever grace the history and art of film making because he gives commanding performances in all manners of roles. As John Russell, George C. Scott gives yet another amazing performance, but this time around as a man whose loss of his wife and daughter (essentially the loss of his own life) is like an ember that slowly burns him from the inside out until his lament cracks through the mask he wears to hide his woe from the world. In addition, as John Russell digs into the truth behind the haunting of his new home, you never see him stereotypically give in to panic or plow through the scenes with a macho hyper-masculine attitude that you may expect from George C. Scott’s portrayal of General Patton, but instead you see genuine fear and caution in his eyes, like as if he were a man being stalked by an unseen predator, but a predator that he may have a chance to reason with and appease. Thanks to his more mature reactions towards dealing with paralyzing fear, George C. Scott keeps in control, visually suppressing his most primal urges to break down in terror and run from the house without looking back, and instead he continues to press forward in order to discover the unsettling truth behind the haunting.
Joining George C. Scott was his real-life wife, Trish Van Devere, who plays Claire Norman, a real-estate agent and a female companion to John Russell, but thankfully not really a love interest to the still wounded and reeling widower. However, Claire Norman is one of the few other people besides John Russell who witnesses the unexplainable phenomenon that goes on within the century-old house, and she becomes John’s right-hand lady during his attempts to solve the mystery behind Joseph’s death. While John Russell is a level-headed and far less visually shaken character, Claire Norman is reduced to the stereotypical screaming woman in The Changeling, although to her credit she’s portrayed as extremely intelligent and a source of great support in both John’s research into the history of the house, and John’s own personal issues regarding the loss of his family. Melvyn Douglas plays the powerful and intimidating Senator Joe Carmichael, whose family used to own John’s house, and who is unaware of any wrongdoing by his deceased father, and believes the whole affair to be a scheme for John to blackmail him or destroy his political career. Melvyn Douglas does an excellent job of playing the role of a powerful and fairly ruthless senator without coming off as too megalomaniacal with the part, and instead portrays the Senator as just a man of influence who loved his father, and who doesn’t want his or his father’s good name potentially tarnished by John Russell’s investigations and seemingly crazy allegations.
I keep mentioning the camera work, the sound effects and the general ambiance of The Changeling and for good reason. The Changeling uses a lot of POV shots and very few jump cuts within the house, creating a prolonged sense of dread as you watch characters ascend dark staircases, investigate sounds and objects, and witness the horrors of the haunted house firsthand. Even more horrifying is that some of the scenes show with the camera drifting slowly and fluidly down from the attic and towards, for instance, the seance actually imply that you’re seeing the events through Joseph’s ghost’s eyes. The sound effects range from slightly corny and cliche, to downright chilling. Through the course of the film you’ll hear a lot of ghost wailing (you know, “whooooooo….ooooooooh…”) and it does get annoying because it’s not as convincing as, say, the recording of the seance held in the house where you hear Joseph’s ghastly voice crying, “Father… *sniffle*… no father… *sniffle*…” The ethereal voice of Joseph sends chills down my spine just thinking about it, especially when taken into the context of his unfortunate demise. Additionally, music is a key element of The Changeling, from John Russell playing his piano alone in the empty house, to a rusty music box found in the attic, there are recurring tunes that carry through the course of the movie and help add a sense of tension and sorrow to the overall experience.
Probably the single thing that sort of ruined the movie for me was the ending, which after such a slow, terrifying buildup, just felt too rushed and a little over the top, but I’d rather not spoil exactly what happens because the entire movie is worth watching and I can’t recommend it highly enough for those of you who want to watch… no, EXPERIENCE a great haunted house flick.
However, in concluding this review I want to share some little-known trivia with you about the ‘inspiration’ for The Changeling: It is based on a real story.
**POSSIBLE MOVIE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Apparently the majority of the events from The Changeling are recreations of documented events that happened to the film’s writer Russell Ellis Hunter while staying in Denver in 1968. According to the story, Hunter rented the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion for an unbelievable price, only to begin hearing and seeing strange phenomenon. In the beginning there was a terrible pounding coming from the fireplace, followed by doors opening and closing unaided, and walls vibrating and shaking off pictures and paintings. Hunter was later tipped off by a stranger about a mysterious third floor to his house, hidden behind a false wall in the second floor closet. After breaking down the wall with the aid of friends he found a small room, and inside the room was a chest containing the diary of a 9 year old boy whose parents locked him inside because he was born a cripple. At the advice of his friends, Hunter hired a psychic medium, who revealed that the boy died of mysterious circumstances before he could inherit a fortune from his grandfather, and was buried in secret, while his parents adopted a look-alike child in order to get the inheritance. The medium said where the body was buried (under a house in Denver) and that if the homeowners didn’t allow the body to be recovered, the ghost would harm the children of the family living there. After strange disturbances were reported from the occupants of the house supposedly built over the boy’s body, the homeowners agreed to an excavation and a child’s body was recovered from an abandoned well under the earth. Not long afterward in the 1970s, the house was razed and demolished. But the phantom of the boy remained with Russell Ellis Hunter and began haunting his new home. An exorcism was performed by an Episcopal priest, and whether or not the exorcism ‘seemed’ to have worked, as the priest never heard complaints of a ghost from Hunter again.
**END OF SPOILERS**
I feel that The Changeling is one of the few horror movies that can really be classified as honestly horrifying. The Changeling does just about everything that a haunted house movie should: Tells a tragic story with believable characters portrayed by veteran actors, and it doesn’t rely on cheap scares, excessive violence, or ridiculous amounts of special effects (ie ‘gimmicks’) to be not only be convincing, but be terrifying. As far as I’m concerned, The Changeling conveys true horror, and it’s the perfect movie for a late night with your girlfriend or wife, or even by yourself if you want to sit in a dark room with a tub of popcorn. Even better, a DVD copy of The Changeling is about $6 on Amazon.com, and it’s available on Netflix and most other movie rental services.
Do yourself a favor and watch this fantastic and nearly forgotten horror masterpiece.