Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Changeling (1980)

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Last week, we recorded a Shouts From the Back Row podcast about our favourite haunted house movies and my personal #1 selection was the underrated 1980 chiller, The Changeling (no relation to the Clint Eastwood-Angelina Jolie film). Our came about because of the recent release of the very successful haunted house flick, The Conjuring, which has already been touted as one of the scariest horror movies of recent years. It says a lot about The Conjuring’s effectiveness that even though it contains very little objectionable content and would have ordinarily merited a “PG-13” rating, the MPAA still felt compelled to slap it with an “R”. The only reason the MPAA could come up with to justify that rating was that they thought the film was simply too damn scary. This same logic could also be applied to The Changeling. Here’s a film with no gore, no nudity or sex, and very little violence or profanity, and yet it still received an “R” rating. To be fair, there was no “PG-13” rating in 1980, but even with very little objectionable content, the MPAA probably felt that The Changeling was just too frightening to be rated “PG”. However, one can almost understand their logic as the film is a genuinely scary experience. I watched it for the first time at the age of 20 while I was home alone late at night and had a pretty hard time sleeping afterward. If I had watched The Changeling when I was a kid, it probably would have traumatized me forever.

The Changeling opens with a pretty harrowing non-supernatural scene as a composer named John Russell (George C. Scott) witnesses his wife and young daughter get run down by a truck while they’re stranded by the side of the road. Following the tragedy, John decides he needs a change, so he moves from New York to suburban Seattle and rents a large Victorian-era mansion from Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere), a real estate agent from the local historical society. Not surprisingly, an eccentric old lady from the society is soon giving John ominous warnings that the house is not meant to be lived in and he should leave immediately. Sure enough, John begins hearing mysterious loud banging noises in the house at a specific time every single morning. Other ominous things start happening, such as doors opening and shutting by themselves, windows mysteriously shattering, and notes being played on the piano by an unseen force. John discovers a hidden attic containing an old wheelchair (which is covered in cobwebs, of course) and a music box which just happens to be playing the same tune that John has been composing on the piano. He starts to believe that this secret room is somehow connected to the strange happenings in the house. In a cliched-but-very-effective sequence, John sees that a rubber ball that belonged to his late daughter has been bouncing down the stairs by itself, so he decides to go out and throw the ball off a bridge into the river. When John returns home, he is greeted by the same ball bouncing down the stairs again.

After consulting a psychic and holding a seance in the house, John makes a recording which manages to capture the voice of a young boy calling himself “Joseph”. He then has visions of a crippled boy being drowned in the upstairs bathtub by his father. When John discovers that the mansion was the childhood home of a powerful senator named Joseph Carmichael (George C. Scott), he realizes that the senator is connected to the mystery. The term “changeling” refers to a creature from European folklore which is secretly left in place of a human child, and it’s possible that the senator may actually be a human changeling who took the place of the real Joseph Carmichael. It goes without saying that the narrative is pretty contrived and relies heavily on the spirit of young Joseph deciding to reveal information about the mystery whenever it’s convenient to the plot. There really isn’t much rhyme or reason to some of the things Joseph does, but then again, why look for logic in the actions of a ghost? However, the story is gripping from start to finish and right from the outset, The Changeling has a genuinely eerie and unsettling atmosphere. Of course, the film’s set-up moves at a deliberate pace to slowly build tension, but it leads to some very effective payoffs. The scene where you hear Joseph’s voice on the recording for the first time is incredibly creepy, along with the vision which finally shows what happened to him. In a plot device that was eventually borrowed by The Ring, it’s revealed that Joseph’s body is buried in a well beneath another house, leading to a frightening sequence where a young girl sees Joseph coming out of the floor in her bedroom. If I had watched this scene as a child, I never would have recovered.

The film’s director is Peter Medak, who’s had a very unique up-and-down career, to say the least. He’s directed such diverse films as The Ruling Class, The Krays, Zorro the Gay Blade and Species II, and episodes of such TV series as The Wire, Breaking Bad and Masters of Horror. However, Medak shows himself to be very adept at crafting a haunted house story and generating tension and atmosphere. One of the reasons The Changeling works so well is because of a strong lead performance from George C. Scott. Unlike your typical character in these movies, John rarely overacts or expresses terror at all the frightening things which are happening to him, but this actually works within the context of the material. In many haunted house pictures, you’re often asking yourself why the characters just don’t simply move out of the damn house, but because John is such a strong-willed character recovering with a traumatic personal experience, you can believe his personal obsession with uncovering the truth. Because The Changeling was a Canadian production, it took home “Best Picture” at the first-ever Genie Awards and should be ranked alongside Black Christmas as one of the best Canadian horror films of all time. Even though The Changeling is renowned amongst horror fans, it is still very underrated and since it was released during an era when many haunted house pictures found success, it’s been overshadowed by such genre films as The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist. However, it deserves its accolades simply because it genuinely succeeded at scaring a jaded horror fan like myself, so I’d rank it with The Conjuring and the “Tallman’s Ghost” segment from Unsolved Mysteries as one of the most effective haunted house stories ever.

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