Monday, June 8, 2015

Steve’s Selections #6 – The Changeling (1980)

This is the sixth of twelve films that Steve at 1001plus has picked for me to watch and review.  It’s the first of two horror films he gave me.  Steve is a bigger fan of horror than I am.  I’m sure this is one of the ones he wondered about giving me.  Well Steve, you’ve got no worries here.  This was a very effective movie filled with plenty of goosebump inducing moments for me.  While most horror films lose my attention when they go for the gore, this one stayed restrained (for the most part – more later) and the film has a much greater impact because of it.  And it actually has more going on than just scares.  It’s three parts ghost story, one part murder mystery, and one part political thriller.

Most every genre has something about it that requires a greater than usual suspension of disbelief.  In action films you have to believe that the hero can survive car crashes, recover almost instantly from injuries, and hit every person he shoots at while never being shot himself.  In musicals you have to accept that people can break out into synchronized song.  And in horror films you have to believe people will stick around in situations where anyone with a shred of sanity would be running for the hills.  (A recent Geico commercial spoofs this and it makes me laugh every time.)  While The Changeling does not completely do away with the latter, it does at least give a halfway believable reason for the main character to stick around to the end, and it is better for it.

John Russell (George C. Scott) suffers a tragedy when he sees his wife and young daughter killed in an auto accident right in front of him.  He starts over by moving to Seattle to teach music composition at a college.  He rents a huge mansion that has been abandoned for twelve years.  It has a music room where he can put a piano and write.

It’s not long before he’s being woken up by the entire house reverberating like a gong, doors opening and closing on their own, windows breaking out as if something is inside the house, etc.  An old woman he meets warns him the house “doesn’t want to be lived in.”  Here’s where people would be getting out in real life.  Instead, he looks into the history of the house.  He has a strong sense something is trying to communicate with him.

The woman who rented him the house, Claire (Trish Van Devere – Scott’s real life wife), works for the historical society and they start digging into the history.  They find that about 70 years earlier a girl was killed in an accident not unlike the one that took John’s daughter from him.  Claire puts him in touch with some people who perform a séance.  John records it and while he didn’t hear anything during it, while listening to the tape afterwards he can hear a child’s voice speaking, answering the questions that were asked during the séance.  After the séance he now realizes that this child is not the girl who was killed, but another child no one seems to know about.

He continues to dig (at one point, literally) in order to find out who the child is and what happened to him.  It leads him to a connection to an old Senator (Melvyn Douglas) whose family used to own the house.

It was interesting to see the way Scott played this character.  If you’re like me you tend to picture George C. Scott as barking out words, angry, not someone to be trifled with – ala Patton or Dr. Strangelove.  In this film he plays it quiet, intelligent, and thoughtful.  He’s not meek, but he’s not someone you’d expect to take on a ghost, either.

Let’s face it, though, you don’t watch a ghost story to see George C. Scott give a layered performance; that’s just a bonus.  No, you watch this movie for the scares and suspense.  And this is where it really delivers.  Much like 1963’s The Haunting, this film provides scares with no gore, no loud musical changes, and nothing jumping out of dark places.  Instead it simply builds a little at a time until something as simple as a child’s ball bouncing down the stairs can raise serious goosebumps.  I’m getting some again right now thinking about the scene as I write this.

The only real negative I have with the film is the way they handled the ending.  (No spoilers).  It’s as if the filmmakers felt they had to “go big” after being restrained for the first hour and a half.  The final ten minutes feel like they belong in another film and it hurts it some in my mind.  In addition, the justification for the events in the final ten minutes is, at best, guessed at.  Nothing is indicated in the film why this is suddenly happening when it hadn’t before.  It cost it a half a star in my rating (3.5 instead of 4, which then gets rounded down to 3 for the sake of simplification.)

The Changeling is a Canadian film.  It was nominated for ten Genies (the “Canadian Oscar”) and it won eight of them, including Best Motion Picture.  If you like to be in suspense and to watch something that is actually scary and not just something that squirts buckets of blood at the screen, then this is one of the better films of its kind that you can find.  If it sounds interesting I definitely recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating:  3 out of 5 stars


  1. I agree that the ending is needlessly pyrotechnic, but for me, this one is all about the build-up. The most effective scare moment for me is not the ball, but the item placed at the top of the staircase at one point. That raised all of the hair on my arms.

    I picked this one (and the other horror movie) for the same reason--both of them work almost entirely through atmosphere rather than gore. I like gory movies just fine, but for me, true horror is not about grossing the audience out but about getting under the audience's skin. The Changeling is a smart movie, which is why I like it as much as I do.

    1. Yes, the wheelchair. It worked on me, too.

    2. That moment is what I like about horror movies. There are plenty of horror movies where that never happens, but when it does... That sort of visceral reaction is what makes it worthwhile.

      There are a few moments like that in your horror movie-to-come.