Editor’s note: Jay of the Dead is the host of Horror Movie Podcast and Movie Podcast Weekly. He has been a print and online film critic since 2006, and he has been podcasting about movies since 2010. Jay of the Dead’s horror movie reviews do not contain spoilers.
Sometimes the most horrific aspect of a horror story occurs years before the movie begins. This is often the case with a ghost or haunting movie, and such is the case with Peter Medak’s “The Changeling,” a Canadian horror film starring George C. Scott that was released in North America in March 1980.
The story that was adapted into “The Changeling” is by Russell Hunter, a writer who claimed to have actually experienced many of the movie’s events while living in a mansion in Denver, Colorado. So take it for what it’s worth, but this story is supposedly based on true events…
Here’s the premise: After his family is involved in a horrific accident, composer John Russell (George C. Scott) relocates from New York to Seattle to teach at his alma mater and to have solitary time for grieving and for composing music. But John does not get to enjoy peace in the many years vacant house that he found through the Seattle Historical Preservation Society. Much like John, the old house seems to be haunted by its own memories of upsetting past events.
Horror always seems to be about tragedies, especially tragedies that happen to families. “The Changeling” addresses multiple family tragedies, two peripheral and one central. As referenced above, the film opens with a tragedy that happens to our protagonist and his family.
This event serves a few roles in this screenplay: First, it provides an inciting incident to set our lead character’s involvement in this story into motion. Second, it “softens” the lead character to be more open and receptive to ghostly communication, due to the losses he suffers. And finally, the opening tragedy sets a bleak and unsettling tone for us, the viewers, reminding us that this movie is indeed a horror film, even though the horror comes later.
George C. Scott has a larger-than-life screen presence, in part due to his confident command of his characters and in part due to the strong personas he’s portrayed in the past, such as General George S. Patton Jr. and Ebenezer Scrooge, just to name two. (Yes, “A Christmas Carol” (1984) followed “The Changeling” in chronology of release, but I’m referring to revisiting this film now that the late George C. Scott’s career performances have been long since immortalized in our minds.)
In his review of “The Changeling,” film critic Roger Ebert complained that Scott is “too impassive” and “almost always self-possessed” in this role. Ebert was suggesting that Scott was a great actor, of course, but just not a good choice for a horror movie victim, because he wasn’t overly scared which meant the audience might follow suit.
But I disagree, because to me, it’s the very fact that we see “General Patton” get startled or alarmed that makes me feel like we really have a serious problem here: In other words, if The General is getting nervous, then I’m full-blown scared! And I’m sorry for being so vague and oblique, but to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that I think this character’s ultimate role as haunted victim-turned-helper is problematic for a horror movie. (“The Ring” (2002) is a more recent horror film that finds a deviously clever way to correct my problem with “The Changeling.”)
Though I’m infamously not a ghost movie fan, per se, I have to respect “The Changeling.” For me, it’s among the very best entries for this horror sub-genre — possibly even in the haunted Top 10 of all time. It does many things right, and it’s genuinely creepy (even though it’s a pretty slow burn). It’s your usual ghost movie that gradually escalates, ramping up in severity. But for some fun October viewing, if you’re looking for a good ghost movie, you can’t go wrong with “The Changeling.”
The most intriguing question that ghost movies ask is why is the ghost (or ghosts) not at rest? Ghosts are always upset because of some past grievance that occurred during their mortal lives that they carry with them to their next. Haunting movies are almost always “Somebody Done Somebody Wrong” stories, and I like that mystery because it’s intriguing to finally learn the ghost’s motivation.
And no spoilers here, but I’m very pleased and quite disturbed by the revelatory scene that depicts the monstrous, inciting horror that spawned this haunting. And I have to say, though it’s not graphic in terms of gore, it’s still very strong and upsetting material that will stay with you for a day or two after watching it.
I often say that horror happens to those who deserve it least, and that is the case with many characters in this film. A man who is already not at peace, moves away to find solace, and finds even less peace now.
More often than not, horror isn’t about monsters; it’s about the monstrous acts that people do to one another and how those acts transform them into monsters. Sometimes they are figurative, and sometimes they are literal, but they are bona fide monsters to their victims. And as with “The Changeling,” the so-called monster is merely a secondary by-product of the true horror that created it.
Rating and recommendation:
“The Changeling” (1980) is 7 out of 10 for me, and I call it a “Strong Rental.” It is indeed one of the better ghost movies, despite its slow and mild nature. The story is strong enough to carry the film, and having George C. Scott at the helm helps, too. Incidentally, you can purchase the DVD of “The Changeling” on Amazon, and there’s also a high-quality version of this movie that you can watch free on YouTube. Oddly, when I revisited “The Changeling” for this review, the YouTube post had exactly 666 comments.
—Jay of the Dead
If you’d like to hear a spoiler-filled audio podcast review of “The Changeling” (1980), check out Joel Robertson’s SPOOKY FLIX FEST, when Forgotten Flix Remembers celebrates Halloween 2015.
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