Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Changeling

(1980) Directed by Peter Medak; Written by William Gray and Diana Maddox; Story by Russell Hunter; Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, John Colicos, Barry Morse and Madeleine Sherwood; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“There’s nothing more creepy than being in a huge building, and hearing the faintest little noise. And you see that the wonderful thing about ghosts, is that when you see a ghost like this, right in your face, you see it in your peripheral vision, at the back of your head, and then you turn around then you just see a curtain slightly moving, and that’s scarier than anything else…” – Peter Medak (from Severin Blu-ray commentary)

Imagine searching for the perfect old house, where you can work in peace and seclusion only to discover (Gasp!) it’s haunted. Many horror films have started with this time-worn premise, but few have handled it as deftly as The Changeling. Director Peter Medak’s* film starts on some familiar ground, before evolving into one man’s search for the truth. Shot on a modest budget of $8 million (Cdn), $1 million of which went to star George C. Scott’s salary, The Changeling was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia,** standing in for nearby Seattle.

* Fun Fact #1: According to producer Joel B. Michaels, Donald Cammell (Performance, Demon Seed) was originally hired to direct The Changeling, but planned to take the film in “another direction,” including shooting in black and white (Personally, this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea). Cammell was subsequently fired, and Medak was hired in his place.

** Fun Fact #2: In order to be classified as a Canadian production, 80% of the movie was shot in Canada, with some location shots in Seattle (of the ubiquitous Space Needle and University of Washington campus) and New York.

In the opening scene, John Russell’s (George C. Scott) wife and daughter are killed in a freak accident. The accident itself is depicted in slow motion, effectively capturing an incident frozen in time. The split second between life and death becomes trapped in a terrible memory loop, a source of inner torment to be played on repeat in Russell’s mind.  The renowned composer relocates from New York to Seattle for a much-needed change of scenery. As he settles into his new home (a cavernous old mansion), he almost immediately begins to sense something awry, beyond the range of his senses. Soon after, something makes its presence known, with a pounding sound that occurs at 6:00 a.m. every morning. His explorations lead to a padlocked door, concealing a hidden staircase to a long-unused attic room. Amidst the dust and cobwebs lie the artifacts once belonging to a lonely young boy. Russell finds an ally in historical society member Claire Norman (played by Scott’s real-life wife, Trish Van Devere). Together, they uncover the history of the home’s former occupants, piecing together the tragic fate of the room’s former occupant. Learning about the sins of the past* may prove to be hazardous for Russell, however, when his research leads to a long-buried secret about a prominent local senator (Melvyn Douglas).

* Fun Fact #3: Although the supernatural elements are open for debate, the film’s basic story is derived from real-life events and individuals in turn-of-the 20th century Denver, instead of late 20th-century Seattle.

George C. Scott secures his reputation as an intense actor with his role as John Russell, shouldering the burden of a man stretched to the breaking point. Scott pours his heart into Russell, displaying tremendous range, from rage to tenderness, to overwhelming melancholy. Russell keeps a stoic front publicly, as the guest of honor at a public function, or playing the star professor to a packed college classroom. Scott brings such truth to an emotionally devastating scene, making it seem almost voyeuristic when we observe his character sobbing into his pillow. Away from the scrutiny of others, he’s a man like any other, stricken with grief. It’s this vulnerability that makes Russell susceptible to the supernatural forces at work in the house. Scott sells us through his complex performance, communicating with every subtle facial expression, intonation, and body movement, an individual attempting to comprehend events out of his range of experience. In his Blu-ray commentary, producer Joel B. Michaels indicated that the filmmakers cast against type with Scott, opting for a middle-aged actor, rather than a younger (presumably more glamorous) performer. As portrayed by Scott, it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else occupying the role or conveying the same level of conviction.     

The Changeling weaves its way through the audience’s psyche without resorting to jump scares or optical trickery. Assisted by cinematographer John Coquillon, Medak takes the audience through the numerous rooms and corridors of the house, preferring low camera angles to create a disconcerting effect. We question each sound and every hint of movement (Is it something from an ethereal realm, or something more prosaic?). In this film, a solitary piano key, a child’s rubber ball, or an empty wheelchair convey more menace than a roomful of apparitions. In the tense séance* scene, a medium furiously scribbles on sheets of paper, possessed by a spirit, desperate to contact the world of the living to right an egregious wrong. It’s a foregone conclusion that you can’t have a good haunted house movie without a suitably imposing haunted house, and The Changeling is no exception. The filmmakers constructed a façade at the front of the house used in filming, to give it a more intimidating appearance, and an elaborate three-story set was constructed to create the home’s labyrinthine interior.

* Fun Fact #4: In preparation for the film, Medak attended several séances in the Vancouver area, and claimed on one occasion his deceased older brother’s name was brought up by one of the spiritualists.

The Changeling was a hit in Canada but failed to make a big splash in the U.S. due to poor distribution. Over the ensuing years, it’s left an impact on many viewers (Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are among its many admirers). The film proudly displays its influences, with Medak citing The Haunting (1963), The Uninvited (1944) and The Innocents (1961) as major sources of inspiration. In turn, The Changeling has influenced a whole new generation of filmmakers. The scene where Russell discovers a skeleton in a well could have easily influenced a similar scene in Ringu (1998). Producer Michaels balked at labeling his film “horror,” preferring to call it a “supernatural.” Although I understand his reluctance to lump it together with some of the more lurid movies in the genre, he fails to acknowledge horror comes in many shades. The Changeling belongs to the tradition of subtle horror films, which suggest rather than show. The Changeling gets under your skin, proving what lurks just beyond your field of vision is often scarier than anything special effects can depict.


  1. Great review, Barry!
    I watched The changeling on YouTube back in 2015 or 2016 and found it very unsettling.
    Intense is definitely the correct word for the scene with the psychic. Some of the charlatans out there should take a cue from this film!

    1. Thanks, John! Such a powerful film, thanks to George C. Scott's performance. That automatic writing scene with the psychic was riveting.

  2. Wow, this is so strange. I know I'm in the minority but I am not a big fan of The Changeling. I do like George C. Scott but I actually didn't think much of his performance in this film as I felt he didn't show enough range of emotion. Reading your review, I feel like we watched two different films.

    1. Movies are a subjective medium, and two people can sometimes see very different things. There are plenty of movies I'm in minority about (positive and negative). I guess we'll just chalk this off to our Siskel & Ebert moment. My only question is, who's Ebert and who's Siskel?