The Changeling (1980)


Jun 1, 2004

While Hollywood produced horror films in the majority have been targeted towards the teenage / adolescent audience, there have been selected attempts to make horror films that would appeal to an older crowd as well. The salient features of these films would be their distinctly older protagonists (sometimes big movie stars of an earlier era), a generally more substantial (or al dente, as the Italians might say) plot than your routine teenie slasher flick, reduced levels of gratuitous nudity and/or blood-spilling, and a reliance on building a steady atmosphere of suspense and dread before breaking out the visceral thrills. Examples of this include Hell House, The Exorcist, The Omen, or more recently, The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes. The Changeling, released in 1980, is another example of this 'mature' horror category.

The film stars George C. Scott (Patton, Exorcist III: Legion) as a composer, John Russell, who retires to a secluded town after the shock death of his wife and daughter in an accident. Intending to occupy himself with teaching and composing, Russell leases a sumptuous old house. Unfortunately for him the old house fulfills the horror tradition of having a troubled history and roofing the things that go 'bump' in the night. Disturbed enough by the phenomena to even hold a seance, Russell finds its roots in the murder of a child that was heir to wealth and power and its substitution by another. Russell confronts the substitute, or the 'changeling' as he puts it, and consequences follow.

While the film is photographed with elegance and Scott delivers a restrained and empathetic performance as a the grief-stricken composer, it has flaws that prevent its ascension to classic status. The first half of the film is a literal catalog of the cliches of haunted house stories: doors opening and shutting by themselves, thudding noises in the attic, water pipes turned on automatically. It's hard to feel immersed in a story that confronts you with massive deja vu. While things improve somewhat with the turns the narrative takes, the film-makers also show their insecurity by clumsy insertion of scenes of freak death (like in The Omen, even cribbing the murderous tricycle scene using a wheelchair) and large-scale domestic destruction (a la The Amityville Horror), which stand wholly apart from the otherwise measured pace of the film. The climax comes across as especially egregious because, the way it plays out, it gives short shrift to the somewhat interesting moral compass of the changeling, whose death is brought passively by revenge from the beyond.

To my view The Changeling has its roots in the M.R. James tradition and would fit more comfortably as a small-scale Twilight Zone drama. Its best moments are its quietest ones, where the characters grapple with their emotional state than with the overt manifestations of an inconsistently powerful supernatural force. The compromises made to pepper it with jaded jolt moments and “big” scenes dilute that focus and ultimately reduce its appeal. In the end it is a good-intentioned effort executed with admirable polish but an only partially involving experience.
I'd have to agree with this. I'd heard of the film for years, but only saw it a few months ago. I would say that some of the use of the stereotyped supernatural events is at least mildly effective, but others are, as you note, rather tired and predictable. And the ending seems to me severely rushed, as if they realized that they were running over time and budget, and wanted to cram everything into the last few minutes, which seriously diluted the atmosphere that had been built up during the majority of the film.

Agreed. A flawed, but interesting and at times quite effectively atmospheric effort -- miles above the slasher films, but simply not attaining classic status. There seem to have been a fair number of these during the latter part of the 1970s into the early 1980s; films that are intriguing, but just don't quite make the grade, yet nonetheless have very memorable moments now and again.
I saw this film when i was young and this was i can say the scarest film i have everyseen, for all its faults even know just remembering the ghost of the drowned boy frightens me.
When I first saw this film in the early 80's I found it really scary,the sound effects were good. It was a refreshing change to the slasher movies. It went back to the more suble approach to horror movies.

Granted if we watched it today, it wouldn't have the same effect but at the time....well it made me jump..
Oh I think how one perceives this movie depends a lot on how much one has dabbled ere in the horror genre. It probably hangs together a lot better when you don't identify the cliched patterns and cribbed sources of the scenes you see.

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