Confessional Review: "The Changeling" (1980)
The classic haunting done in the classic Hollywood style with a classic Hollywood actor in the lead. That’s a formula for success. My second Confessional Review is for a movie passed over by this horror-obsessed kid in the ‘80s because (as my Mom put it) “It’s not the kind of horror you like. No one has knives on their fingers or a machete!”
Thank you, Mom. Sincerely. I don’t think I would have appreciated The Changeling nearly as much when I was a kid (or even a 20 year-old stoner, for that matter). As is often the case, the best old-school flicks age like fine wine and are enjoyed by a palate that has been refined through years of variety.
Composer John Russell (George C. Scott; Patton) loses his wife and daughter in a tragic auto accident. Pouring himself into his work, he moves to an old mansion outside Seattle. His friend in the local historical society, Claire (Trish Van Devere; The Last Run) thought of him because of the house’s breathtaking music room. Isolated and grieving, he quickly discovers that the he’s not alone in the house. Music that he’s just composed plays on a music box found in a child’s hidden attic room (complete with ancient wheelchair). The house bangs loudly at exactly the same time every day. The old record keeper at the historical society tells him that “people were not meant to live in that house”. Digging deeper into the past, John finds an awful secret with connections to powerful people. And there’s that damn bouncing ball…….
I try to avoid overused clichés, but I have to say it: they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore. The Changeling is a technical marvel if for no other reason than a complete lack of special effects doesn’t hamper the film’s ability to be extremely tense and atmospheric with palpable scare value. The wide angle shots are effectively spaced and smartly used. There’s a pair of shots from above and below (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see them) that will burn onto your retinas. The house is flat-out gorgeous, a character unto itself as it should be in a quality haunted house movie.
Here comes another cliché: the hair on my arms literally stood up on more than one occasion. The séance scene cannot be topped. Period. It’s subtle enough to avoid campiness and escalatingly wild enough to be thoroughly believable. The scene with the bouncy ball that belonged to John’s dead daughter is one of the most memorable in Hollywood history for a reason- perfectly shot, perfectly acted, perfectly scored. It lowers your body temperature. If those two scenes alone don’t affect you, then I would say that your taste needs to mature a little more like that aforementioned fine wine.
If I had one small gripe, it would be with George C. Scott. I know, that’s blasphemy, but bear with me. He’s one of the all-time greats, but I have to believe that his stoicism throughout the film was a conscious performance decision to show the depth of John Russell’s grief. You’d think there'd be a bit more of a freak-out (if not full-on histrionics) in this kind of situation. Maybe that’s just a Pavlovian reaction; I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that we really can’t see the badass George C. Scott as ever being in real danger! Either way, he’s still in top form. His chemistry with frequent on-screen partner Trish Van Devere is fun to watch and gives the movie its hint of brightness.
That ending? Beautiful, classy, and everything a haunting should be.
The Changeling is a genuine Hollywood treat, one that I encourage those of you reading this to broaden your horizons and expand your personal palate with. You need this in your life. I understand now why it’s so revered. Thank you, Shudder. This is why your streaming service is the best value out there.