In director Peter Medak’s The Changeling, composer John Russell (George C. Scott) relocates to a secluded mansion after the deaths of his wife and daughter. Immediately upon moving in he starts to feel a presence in the house, believing the place to be haunted. But by who and why?
This was my first watch of The Changeling and despite hearing it’s meant to be a horror classic and “one of the scariest horror films ever made” some have said, I still had my doubts about it. I was worried that it would be out-dated or clichéd, that the scares wouldn’t be as effective, because there’s been 38 years’ worth of impressive, chilling horror films since then. Modern-day classics like It Follows and A Quiet Place, great studio-produced chillers like Insidious and The Conjuring franchise, plus other films driven by grief like this year’s exquisite Hereditary, the atmospheric, terrifying The Babadook and the poignant chiller A Ghost Story. Surely, The Changeling wouldn’t be that good? It wouldn’t be that scary. I was wrong.
The Changeling is driven by a credible, brilliant performance by George C. Scott, who masterfully conveys a character who is tormented by the deaths of his family and the death that now haunts his own waking hours. The story manages to side-step clichés associated with haunted house tales, by centring on a single man. Think of all the horror films that put a woman or a family at the centre, where the mother spends most of the film trying to convince the others she’s not crazy and there is a damn demon in the attic. The Changeling’s presence can be felt in countless films over the years; from Ringu and its iconic child-in-a-well story and fellow haunted house offerings like The Conjuring, Ouija, A Dark Song, Sinister, Stoker… the list is endless. Not only is The Changeling fantastic, it’s an important addition to horror and one that has inspired so many extraordinary films after it.
I always argue that the best horror films will stir emotions other than fear. A great, memorable horror piece will scare you silly, but also manage to strike you in the heart with its emotive story. The Changeling does just that. The Changeling‘s supernatural side is an extension of John’s own struggle with death; he was witness to the horrific accident that took the lives of his wife and child. Unable to save them in life, he is given the opportunity to save someone else in death. The times of horror are indescribably creepy, tapping into audiences’ fears of what happens after death. A young girl bears witness to a boy under the floorboards in one of the film’s most memorably creepy scenes and even the simple press of a piano key will give you shivers.
For all this film’s moments of fear, where doors open by themselves, the piano plays on its own and strange noises are heard from the top of the house at the worst possible time, The Changeling‘s story is grounded in a reality of grief and depression. There are times when the atmosphere is chilling and overwhelmed by a sinister air of quiet that promises something wicked this way comes, but there is also an aura of sadness that hangs over this ghost story like a veil, helping to craft a tale that is complex and impressive in its balance of horror and drama.
The Changeling is still as spooky and stirring today as it was in 1980; a truly special and unforgettably eerie experience that will linger long after the credits roll.
DIRECTOR: Peter Medak
STARS: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas
RUNTIME: 107 minutes