What Went Right With… The Changeling?

An image of the wheelchair in The Changeling (1980) for a review by What Went Wrong Or Right With...?

The Changeling is a very underrated horror movie. Starring the late, great George C. Scott, it tells the story of a composer named John Russell who witnesses the death of his wife and child during a winter vacation when a truck ploughs into them. John then moves into a rented property, an old mansion once owned by a rich family named the Carmichaels which is now being restored by the Historical Society. As John uses the empty house to compose pieces of music on the piano, he hears a loud banging sound which repeats everyday. This leads him to discover a hidden room in which he finds an antique child’s wheelchair. After experiencing further unexplained phenomena, Russell slowly uncovers that the mansion he is occupying has had a very tragic past. After a classic nail-biting séance session, a tale of murder, inheritance, and retribution is revealed.

If you’re a horror fan, you may see echoes of other films in The Changeling; the death of the child in the opening scene is slightly reminiscent of Audrey Rose, the hidden door is a little reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, and the bouncing ball may remind you of Marathon Man, but all these elements aren’t imitations in any way. These similarities are most likely coincidental, the film definitely stands on it’s own and the storyline is highly original. Without giving too much away, I’d describe the story as somewhere between The Ring and Stir Of Echoes although, of course, this movie came first.

Speaking of other, newer horror movies, it’s pretty clear that James Wan’s Insidious owes a lot to this film, in fact the séance scene is almost identical to the one here (but less scary due to the slightly comedic tone of Wan’s movie). The Changeling has also been referenced in many other horror films, the ball for instance was part of The Conjuring and the bones being found in the well also featured in the aforementioned The Ring. For me, the fact that The Changeling has been referenced countless times, shows how enduring this film is, especially in the horror genre. If only the overrated Clint Eastwood/Angelina Jolie movie hadn’t borrowed part of the title and part of the plot and made such a dull film, I think more people would be aware of this 1980 release.

The story of The Changeling was apparently based on an experience writer Russell Hunter had whilst living in a mansion in Denver, Colorado during the 1960s. Regardless of the source of inspiration, the resulting movie is a horror classic. Director Peter Medak who is known more for crime dramas such as The Krays, Romeo Is Bleeding, and Let Him Have It, does a great job of building mood as the mystery unfolds. Medak refrains from giving shocks until it’s absolutely necessary, he build and builds the atmosphere which makes the flashbacks and scares all the more memorable. This skill in building tension and a sense of horror rather than stitching a series of predictable shocks together is something the aforestated James Wan has learnt to do but unfortunately many of his contemporaries haven’t. But I digress.

The increasing volume of the audio recording where Scott’s character hears the voice of a dead child saying his name “Joseph”, the fast camera movement in the dark hall, there are many scenes which convey thrills and dread brilliantly thanks to Peter Medak. Of course, aside from the direction, I have to mention the astounding sound design and score which adds to this sense of trepidation. The actors in The Changeling are also very skilled including real-life husband and wife George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere. Melvyn Douglas (Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Ghost Story) is particularly great as the rich senator, tycoon, and heir to the Carmichael fortune and mansion. When he looks at the two christening medals for instance, he brings such emotion to the scene that you feel for his predicament, which of course, is not his fault. As Shakespeare once wrote; the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.

The Changeling is the kind of film that you want to watch properly the first time around, because once you’re familiar with the plot, you won’t see the scares in the same way in later viewings. Similar to The Sixth Sense, once you know the source of the haunting, it’s never the same. That’s not to say that there’s a plot twist in The Changeling but the way in which the various reveals are handled, once you’ve seen them, there’s no more mystery regarding the disabled child and the orphan in the second or third viewing, in fact what you first think is spine-chilling you later see as sorrowful. That being said, this is still a superior film, if you haven’t seen this movie I recommend that you watch it at night with your smartphone switched off, without any distractions and preferably alone. This is without a doubt a first-rate mystery-horror that needs a bigger audience.

How did you die in this house, why do you remain?

Writing: 7/10

Directing: 8/10

Acting: 8/10

Music: 9/10

Overall: 8/10

2 replies »

  1. I completely agree with everything you say about the film The Changeling with George C Scott. I saw the film years and years ago and always remembered it. I then got it on DVD years ago and it is a prized gem in my horror collection. I won’t even lend it to anyone for fear that I won’t get it back! Haha. I often tell people you should see this movie though. It still really surprises me that very few people seem to have heard of it. Again I concur that people tend to think of the film with Angelina Jolie which has got nothing to do with it. A little annoying that the other movie is called the changeling too…(!) Afterall the horror gem of a movie The Changeling is unique. I watch it again after some time has passed and it never fails to be spooky and atmospheric. Even though I know the plot it still holds many thrills. A truly wonderful film. It’s a keeper. And I think you may still be able to get it via big online retailer.

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