31 Days of Halloween — Day 4: The Changeling (1980) — by Jay of the Dead

The Changeling 1980

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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24 thoughts on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 4: The Changeling (1980) — by Jay of the Dead

  1. (Practically spoiler free)

    Day 4 – Zombeavers (2014)

    With a title like Zombeavers, you know that you’re about to experience some high brow exceptional acting to the highest degree. It’ll clearly be a front runner for all of the Oscars. So before you hit that play button, you should have a pretty decent idea of what you’re getting yourself into. As far as quality goes, I’d say Zombeavers is above a typical Troma release and about on part for a Full Moon picture, while not quite being as good as the latest sci-fi original movie. As long as you’re expecting that, it might not be such a bad movie to watch.

    While he didn’t have a big role, the highlight of the movie for me was comedian Bill Burr as the toxic waste driver that ends up setting everything in motion after he hits a deer and one of the toxic canisters falls off of the truck and rolls into the lake. I’m a big fan of Burr’s stand-up act and I’d recommend anyone to go onto Netflix and see what they can find of his work on there. I’m sure there’s at least two specials. Burr’s scenes also contain the random fun of seeing John Mayer as Burr’s character’s coworker. Mayer may have have not been as funny as Burr, but you’re still witnessing Mayer’s first role in a feature length movie be about beavers turned into zombies. It’s far too random not to find some odd enjoyment in it.

    Despite it’s time length of under an hour and twenty minutes, I did find that Zombeavers began to drag in the second half when the horror kicked in with the killer beavers. While there is some solid interest in seeing what a zombie/beaver hybrid would look like in their attacks on the college students, it loses it’s appeal quality. Once you see that first scene, you saw the main draw to watching the film. I don’t have any alternative ideas for how they could have made the movie more interesting for me other than drastically cutting the time down so it would only be the length of an episode of some wacky horror TV anthology show.

    I will give the film credit in that it tried to mix things up and not make everything so predictable. This was shown by the order of the deaths and who ends up having the larger roles in the movie compared to who you would have imagined. It’s not much, but it did ensure that I didn’t completely zone out as I had to keep watching to see who was going to be killed next.

    If you watch the movie on Netflix, I’d suggest watching all the way through. The closing credits features an amazing Richard Cheese-like song based on the movie. Later, there’s some wacky credits that you’ll have to keep your eyes open for to see. Finally, once the credits conclude, there’s a stinger with a new animal getting infected to possibly set up a sequel. Without giving away which animal was now infected, I did have a sensible chuckle at what the name of the animal/zombie hybrid would likely be.

    Overall, Zombeavers is Night of the Living Dead if the zombies were actually beavers. The special effects look cheap, but they’re supposed to be. None of the core six characters are going to stand out much for you, but the three ladies are certainly easy on the eyes. I think the best way to enjoy this film is watching it with some of your buddies, while possibly enjoying some adult beverages to help laugh at the wackiness of what you’re seeing. If you did what I did and watch it alone, it’ll likely get old quickly. Still, it’s almost worth watching just to listen to that song during the credits. Just try and listen to it without it getting stuck in your head.

    I’d give it a rating of 4.5 with a very light recommendation to watch it on Netflix if you’re with some friends or a recommendation to avoid if you’re by yourself.

  2. 31 days of Halloween Day 3

    7. Coherance (**) – This hotel was trashed before Xander even got there.
    8. Alice, Sweet Alice (***) – Much more of a Giallo than a slasher Jay, but getting warmer.
    9. Blood Widow (**) – Great costume ruined by horrible characters, terrible plot, awful editing, ghastly script, horrendous editing, and unattractive actresses.
    10. Demonic (**) – Same as above but without the great costume and the cute blond girl from Secret Life of the American Teenager.
    11. Pyramid (***) – I would love this movie if it was a straight up adventure film. Get rid of the cats and the virus and just make it temple of doom without the found footage.
    12. Cooties (****) – Doug is one of my favourite characters in a horror film ever. “That’s why sometimes I use the wrong rowboat.”

    • Doug was great. I don’t know if he’s an all-timer for me, but I could have used even more of him in Cooties. I reviewed this on Movie Stream Cast this week and liked it a lot less than you.

      I love your take on Pyramid as well.

      With regard to Alice Sweet Alice … proto-slasher?

      • Definitely a proto-slasher though I don’t think it had much influence on pure slashers. It seems to have far more in common with Don’t Look Now.

    • Alice Sweet Alice!

      Now there’s a movie I need to get around to seeing at some point this October. It seems like every year I end up skipping over it.

  3. Day 4…
    Tremors 5 Bloodlines (2105)
    Graboids, Shriekers, and Ass Blasters…Oh My!
    Shame it didn’t get a theatrical run because it has a big movie feel…maybe better than the original…Burt’s a bad muther Ke$ha!

    Cub (2014)
    Pretty good film for a crowd funded movie…From Belgium…Sad the smallest movies from other countries are better than our big budget attemps…

    Danger! 50,000 Zombies! (2002)
    Nick Frost and Simon Pegg on how to survive a zombie outbreak…
    Rating…10 (A must watch!)

    • I don’t know, Shanon. Tremors 5 is way out of Tremors’ league in my opinion. Michael Gross tries his hardest and Jamie Kennedy is kind of there, but it’s pretty ok at best. It’s probably better than the other sequels, but not by much. The special effects were very impressive for a film this small though. I just hate the other types of graboids they added in the sequels. It’s a 6.5 for me. Sorry to rain on your parade. We can still be friends, right? 😉

    • I’ll echo Dark Mark’s comments. Excellent review, JOTD. You really brought your typically analytical approach to the story and themes of the movie.

      I own this movie, but the last time I watched it was probably 15 years ago so can’t really remember too much of it. I also remember my younger, less patient self dozing in and out of sleep when watching it back then. Maybe it’s time for a revisit.

  4. Day 4: Cooties
    Contaminated chicken nuggets turn the children at a school into zombies.
    I enjoyed Cooties but was hoping it would be better. This film is a comedy with a very enjoyable cast but I wanted to see more development of the characters. It’s not scary, a little disturbing, a little gory, and funny most of the time. I feel like the ending isn’t very satisfying. Wolfman Josh reviews this movie without spoilers on Movie Stream Cast. http://www.moviestreamcast.com/movie-stream-cast-54-cooties-2015/

  5. Day 4: THE GREEN INFERNO (2015) – 7.5/10

    THE GREEN INFERNO is a movie I had been looking forward to for awhile, ever since JOTD first mentioned it on HMP sometime last year. As a fan of Eli Roth and “strong” horror films, my anticipation (and expectations) boiled over to a fever pitch once I laid eyes on its movie poster. The vivid colors and sheer terror on display told me this movie could be something special. So, did it disappoint?

    Turns out, that’s a difficult question to answer. THE GREEN INFERNO was not at all what I was expecting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it does make it more difficult for me to process (and I think I’m still trying to process it). It is essentially two different movies mashed into one, beginning as an adventure thriller and then crashing into a horror movie. And while an adventure movie isn’t what I paid to see, that section of the movie was entertaining (gripping at times, actually) and served the plot by getting the film’s characters into a completely foreign and dangerous land.

    And that’s mainly what this movie is – a fish out of water tale. We see this from the very beginning with the film’s protagonist, Justine, whose bleeding heart wants to help solve the world’s problems but doesn’t know how to. She joins a campus activist group, but doesn’t really fit in and gets kicked out of her first meeting for making a flip comment. Then, once the students make their way to Peru, they’re really out of their element; there’s a great scene that displays this unfamiliarity, just after they first land when they’re trying to reach a couple of boats, but are having difficulty navigating their way through the locals.

    This fish out of water theme is also what supplies most of the horror in the film. It feeds off of both the characters’ and the audience’s fear of the unknown, and our collective ignorance of certain indigenous peoples. The characters (and we) never fully know what is happening, or what is going to happen. We immediately see what the tribe is capable of, so that threat hovers over like a steady dark cloud. But the uncertainty of the situation weighs heavily.

    And that leads into a question I’ve been asking myself since seeing this film: is THE GREEN INFERNO really a horror movie? There are certainly horrific moments and strong gore, but does that constitute a horror film? Maybe my lack of knowledge in the cannibal sub-genre is what’s tripping me up on this, but the film rarely conjured up any fear in me. There certainly are suspenseful moments throughout, but that’s not the same thing. In this instance, I would call the cannibal elements horror. But the film, as a whole, is more of a mild horror movie with strong content.

    Overall, the movie is very polished and well done, as you would expect from a widely released Eli Roth film. The cast was fine, with Lorenza Izzo giving a standout performance, and the gore effects were all really good in the best kind of over-the-top way. As Sal mentioned before, the only glaring technical gaffe were the CGI ants; I didn’t think they were horrible, but they stood out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the film.

    Is THE GREEN INFERNO a racist film? Perhaps, but I see it as more of a commentary on our ignorance of and apathy toward the outside world than anything else. Is THE GREEN INFERNO a horror film? Most people would probably call it horror because of the extreme content, but I would not fault someone for calling it something like a strong adventure thriller. One thing I can say with certainty, though, is THE GREEN INFERNO is a good movie that I liked… I think. I give it a 7.5/10 and say it’s worth seeing.

    It also piqued my interest in the cannibal sub-genre, so I guess that’s a win.

    • I watched a historic cannibal movie recently for an upcoming review and I was left wondering if it’s horror as well. It’s certainly gory, which does go hand in hand with horror, but was it ever scary? Ehhh…

      This might not be a popular opinion, but cannibal films feel more like an ultra extreme drama.

      • I think I’m basically of the same opinion as you on this, Sal. I imagine this is a topic that will be discussed by the HMP guys on their upcoming cannibal-themed episode.

        • Most likely. I can’t say I’m envious of the HMP guys for having to watch a lot of cannibal movies to prepare for the podcast. It seems pretty taxing to have to watch one cannibal film after another when there may not be much substance to them.

  6. Hey Jay,

    I agree with your point regarding Roger Ebert’s criticism of George C. Scott in this film…because if he’s shaken up, then we should be too! I completely agree with you there. However, I don’t agree with either of you when it comes to perspective.

    Considering how a horror film should be constructed in relation to audience reaction isn’t the best way to tell a story, in my opinion, and I’ll point out why:

    A. Story is an analogy for how the human mind attempts to solve a problem.

    B. A storyteller must have something to say.

    C. Successful storytelling depends upon whether the storyteller communicates their point clearly in a way the audience understands (“Life isn’t this way, it’s this way”).

    I think that to honestly analyze and appreciate art, we have to look at the author’s intent, understanding that a work is on purpose. We have to consider what the author is trying to say behind the work and see if it was communicated clearly. It only makes sense to accept that what we see is what the author wants us to experience and as critics, it’s possible to make an error in thinking that ‘this or that would have been more effective if the author had done this or that instead’ at ALL TIMES. It does apply quite often, but in this case The Changeling is dealing with the problem of senseless tragedy and helplessness of a survivor, leaving a mark upon the main character in the form of an unsolved problem in his life…in order to find some kind of closure, he attempts to help someone else and lay them to rest. I don’t think the film needs to be ‘scarier’. I believe the point was made very clearly and it was something that needed to be said. I haven’t seen this story anywhere else, and I wouldn’t change a thing because I’ve had the experience of this particular film.

    Anyways, thought I would throw that out there. I absolutely love this movie and sometimes find myself chafing at the idea that a filmmaker has done some imagined wrongs when it really comes down to the preference of a viewer or critic.

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