The Changeling (1980) Review

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“That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.”

The first time I saw The Changeling,  it scared the crap out of me.   It was my brother’s eighth birthday party – a sunny Sunday afternoon is about as far from horror as you can get, and yet, I was absolutely terrified.  I’m sure being four years old had something to do with it.  Still, I remember being in a frozen horror, relieved when it ended, tormented by nightmares for weeks.  I hadn’t seen it since then.  I knew it wouldn’t terrify me like it did when I was a child, but I hoped it would at least hold up as a competently made film.  Thankfully, it did – The Changeling  is a classy, stately traditional ghost story, well acted, with considerable pathos.

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Composer John Russell (George C. Scott) is a man racked with the agony of having lost his family in a tragic accident.  He takes up a teaching post at the behest of his friend, moving into an old estate where he can continue to work on his own compositions and grieve for his wife.  Shortly after moving in, he begins to hear strange sounds and see odd events.  Is he losing his grip with reality, or is someone, or something attempting to contact him from the other side?

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Damn.  That opening.  Despite a lack of anything supernatural, the stark horrific reality of the opening of The Changeling is truly chilling.  It’s hard to think of a monster that could horrify more than watching a man witness the death of his family to chance in a simple, brutal accident, and George C. Scott wears that loss in every frame.  Speaking of George,  he bears the unfortunate distinction of having appeared in two of the most underrated horror films ever made: The Exorcist 3, and The Changeling.  While most people have at least heard of The Exorcist 3, The Changeling sadly remains mostly unknown.  No matter – Scott is great in The Changeling, just as he was in The Exorcist 3, bringing weight and believability to the role.

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Director Peter Medak does a nice job building mood – this film is all dust and cobwebs and buried secrets.  The sound design is excellently creepy and reminiscent at times of The Haunting‘s sublime marriage of sound and camera work.  While there’s nothing particularly unique about The Changeling – this is a film that is, at its heart, a throwback to classic ghost stories – it’s a real pleasure to watch a serious ghost story well executed.  Fear is admirably built with sound and imagery rather than jump scares – a child’s ball becomes sinister when it bounces down the hardwood steps of an empty house, a rickety wheelchair becomes threatening in a dim, walled-off room.  Not everything is perfect – there’s a relationship between George C. Scott’s John Russel and his real estate agent Claire Norman (Scott’s real life wife Trish Van Devere) that never develops into anything at all, and the climax is a bit rushed – but whatever flaws exist, The Changeling has an eerie, inexorable power that few films can match.

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The Changeling is a well-made, classy, classic ghost story with wonderful acting and great atmosphere.  It’s smart, and filmed with a rare level of respect for the material.  If you haven’t seen The Changeling, it comes highly recommended.

9/10

19 thoughts on “The Changeling (1980) Review

  1. Great review, still remains one of the creepiest films I’ve ever seen.

    I’ve never seen The Exorcist 3 but I’ve heard it’s really good and underrated. Must find out more!

      1. I’ve just ordered it on Amazon 🙂 I’ve heard so many good things about it, can’t just be coincidence! I’ve heard it’s a shame it wasn’t released under a different name rather than an ‘Exorcist sequel’. I’ll let you know my thoughts 🙂

  2. Concise review and correct. Changeling is eerie and certainly has a pervasive creepiness.

    Exorcist 3 is a MUST SEE. Underrated.

    A different layer of chills.

  3. I saw this film in my youth when it aired primetime on a network. I remember it as chilling but haven’t revisited it (yet). Peter Medack is a fine director, I really like his bizarre film The Ruling Class that questions the meaning of sanity amidst the British hierarchy and his Masters of Horror entry, The Washingtonions, is just as frighteningly eerie as The Changeling.

  4. Oh, man, this remains one of my top three horror movies of all time (‘The Others’ and ‘The Orphanage’ are the other two). This movie shows just how much atmosphere and tension you can create simply through slow, quiet moments. I’ll never ever forget the damned rubber ball scene.

  5. Great review, I really enjoyed this movie! I loved the scene where he finds the secret entrance in the closet because when I was a kid I always wanted to find a hidden door in our house; I’d pat down the walls of my closet looking for secret panels. George C. Scott is a very good actor. I got my twelve-year-old sister to watch this, thinking it was pretty tame but she hid her face the whole time, insisting that she just… didn’t… like… jump scares. The tension was a little much for her I think. I’m sorry you had the misfortune of watching this when you were four, it might seem silly now, but that kind of thing can leave a mark on people. My parents made sure I watched primarily kids movies as a child and some of those still scared the ever-loving dickens out of me!

  6. Agree with you on this movie – one of my favorite ghost stories of all time. I have it on DVD. I might need to dust it off and watch it again pretty soon. I also agree with you on The Exorcist 3. Almost rivals the original and it is by far the best sequel to ever come out of that series of movies.

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