Horror. Worldview. Faith.

The Changeling – Review

The Changeling – Review

Jan 27, 2010

reviewed by Danny
directed by Peter Medak, 1980
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One of my earliest horror-related memories was being scared witless by my first viewing of Friedkin’s The Exorcist.  I had been forbidden to watch it by my parents and had to turn the channel on the television anytime I heard footsteps approaching my room (no remote control for me, so I was sitting within arm’s length of the television at all times).  The fear of getting caught mixed with the frightening images on screen left me exhausted but intoxicated by the time the film ended.  This experience made me a fan of the genre for life.  Unfortunately, after years of exposure to and analysis of the genre, it is rare that I find a new horror film frightening.  For that reason, I value those films that scared me back in the day and, more so, the films that creep me out even after repeated viewing.  Peter Medak’s The Changeling is certainly one of those.

The Changeling stars George C. Scott as John Russell, a composer and music professor who has the awful experience of watching his wife and daughter die in a traffic accident.  After a period of mourning, he moves to a new town and begins teaching again.  He soon moves into a large mansion with, we find out later, a mysterious history.   As is pretty traditional in the sub-genre, Russell hears strange noises, sees things in his peripheral vision, and is generally made uncomfortable in his new surroundings.  Eventually, Russell begins to piece together the history of the house.  As you might expect, it is dark and violent.

The Changeling contains many elements that are now standard in the haunted house movie.  Most of them were well-used in the early years of the genre.  We get a séance, see spirit writing, hear mysterious voices that have been recorded on tape but weren’t heard live.  A walled off room is discovered that reveals a dark secret.  Thematically, the sins of a father are re-visited on a son.  None of this is particularly original.  In fact, it is all to be expected in such a film.  The Changeling stands out because of its craftsmanship, its sincerity, and the weight imparted on the events by Scott’s central performance.

Despite the familiar nature of the plot, many of the elements feel fresh and new because of how well they are shot.  The séance that is arranged after Russell begins to believe something supernatural is going on is one of the best ever filmed.  It is supernatural through and through yet somehow very believable.  This quality is seen in nearly every supernatural moment.  There are some great special effects later in the film, but mostly everything is pulled off with simple camera trickery which never comes off as cheesy.

At no point watching The Changeling do we feel the events are anything but real.  The sadness at the heart of the Russell character colors how we see the events.  Clearly still troubled by his loss, he easily could have been one of Poe’s unreliable narrators.  Instead, he is just the opposite.  We believe the events of the story because Russell believes them.

And that belief is so important in a horror film.  By their nature, they can’t be “realistic” in the literary sense, but they must feel real.  The Changeling does and I think that is the core reason I have always found it so scary.

In the end, what we find scary is such a personal concept that I can’t guarantee The Changeling will have the same effect on other viewers as it did on me.  I can guarantee that they will see an amazing central performance and an extremely well-made film.

(Note:  I couldn’t find many details about the films U.S. Theatrical run, so I’m not sure how much of an impact it had here.  However, the film is one of the most successful Canadian films of all time, in terms of both box office and critical acclaim.  The film was nominated for ten Genie awards (basically the Canadian Oscars) and one eight, including Best Motion Picture and Best Foreign Actor– for George C. Scott).

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2 comments

  1. The first-person point of view when the “spirit” runs up the stairs, into the attic, and focuses on the wheelchair makes my heart stop every time. I think that scene is one of the most bone-chilling in all of horror. Thanks for this review.

  2. His daughter’s ball rolling down the stairs after he has chucked it off a bridge into the river is my favorite moment. Lots of nice scares in this one.

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