I had not heard of 1980’s The Changeling until a couple of months ago. After that I heard about it several times in quick succession. Each time was praising the film as a forgotten gem. I am always a little suspicious of a film that seems to have fallen of the radar so much. It’s usually for a reason. Having now watched it and really enjoyed it, I understand why this does not get the attention it deserves. The late 70’s and early 80’s saw a wave of classic horror films that changed the direction of the genre to this day. The Changeling would have done better if it had been released 5 or 10 years earlier. This film is a much gentler ghostly thriller than was being produced by 1980. That does not mean that this is a bad film though, far from it.
The film centres on George C. Scott’s character John Russell, a musician and music teacher who, following the death of his Wife and Daughter, moves into a rented historical house. While dealing with his grief he starts to hear strange noises in the house. His investigations into the house lead him to a boarded up attic room that contains a small dusty child’s wheelchair. The hauntings escalate and he finds out more about the child that died in the house.
While I enjoyed this film and happily recommend it there are several issues that need to be addressed and are the reason it got lost in the mix with other films around this time.
The tension builds well for the first two thirds of the film and there are some really spooky moments. The massive house is used like a real haunted house. Doors slam, pipes bang and it’s all played like an old school ghost story, which is one of the reasons I like this so much. There are no huge moments with people being pulled up stairs by an unseen force or a ghostly wind blasting through the house and no mention of Demons. It feels a lot more real. There is a reason for that; the script is based on alleged events experienced by the writer a decade before.
Unfortunately the mystery is revealed a bit too early and the last third drags as it reaches the finale. This tension is mostly lost by the time the credits roll despite some great set pieces and performances. However, an uneven script is not helped by pedestrian direction and cinematography. Looking at their other credits both the director and cinematographer have done mostly TV work and it is shows. The locations for the film, the House in particular, are beautiful and a more talented cinematographer could have used them more effectively. Also, throughout the dialogue scenes are shot with the same intensity as ghost scenes, both of which have a TV movie feel.
When you stand this next to similar films around this time, such as Poltergeist (1982), The shining (1980) or The Amityville Horror (1979) it doesn’t stand up. Each of those had something special which makes them stand apart. With stronger more auteur direction this could have been elevated to the classic status along with the other films listed.
As I say there are several great effective spooky moments, also the essence of the story is strong and disturbing. Despite the pacing issues the feeling of grief and how that affects people, possibly opening them up to experiencing supernatural things is played really well. This is bolstered by brilliant sound design. The character of John Russell being a musician is utilised well with a creepy score that both supports and exists within the film.
Speaking of John Russell I would like to mention how good George C. Scott is. Scott plays John Russell as a quiet man looking for peace and to work through his grief. He portrays different sides of the grief so well and with dignity, from crying with despair to reminiscing over a photo album. There are several moments in the film where his is stopped in his tracks by a memory or his emotion and I felt it with him. In other scenes we get to see more of the man that he was. When the hauntings begin he ends up bringing in a medium to conduct a séance. During the mediums rantings and scribbled spirit writing the look of disdain for his face is priceless and completely valid.
His feelings and grief are what propel him through the film and drive him to follow the investigation to its end. I get the feeling that knowing he has done the right thing for this lost soul will make him feel reassured about what has happened to his wife and daughter. A good man whose life has been broken and he is looking for sense and peace in his life.
Overall, this is a good film with solid performances in a pretty strong story. Unfortunately despite these it feels like a film from 1972 released in 1980. Weak direction and a failure to utilise the locations really hinder this film. Had this been directed by Spielberg or Kubrick I am convinced that this would have been a classic. It is well worth a watch especially if you enjoy the smaller more down played ghost stories over the over blown nonsense that is released today.