The Changeling (1980)
In the extras of Second Sight’s The Changeling is a video appreciation from the producer of TV’s Masters of Horror, Mick Garris (Hocus Pocus & Critters 2). This is one of many features that was originally made for Severin’s release in America, in this five-minute piece Garris talks about the stature of the Changeling in the Horror community and its status as a “horror movie for grown-ups”. And, I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what I think of that. On the one hand, it is true, audiences who flock to the cinemas on a Friday night to see the latest horror movie more often than not skew to the younger end of the age spectrum, so by the process of elimination anything that doesn’t tailor itself to that must be for “grown-ups”. However, to frame a movie using those terms plays into the profile that has been prescribed to the genre by critical and awarding bodies. Films like the Witch, Get Out, the Badabook, and Hereditary show that in this contemporary era only those horror films that deal in emotional truths receive a fair shake and everything else that operates with similar generic traits are consigned to the bin marked “disposable popcorn fodder”. Perhaps I am reading way too much into this statement, but it is an issue that has always concerned me with movies marginalised by the mainstream – the same thing happened with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and his 2015 martial arts epic, The Assassin, but I digress…
You could make the argument that Nicolas Roeg’s visual masterpiece, Don’t Look Now and the Changeling are treatments of the same story. The protagonists are both men (George C. Scott in the Changeling) who see the tragic deaths in their family and in their struggle to find a coping mechanism open themselves up to horrific and fantastical happenings. Loose similarity, I know, but it is there. Here, Scott plays a composer who rents a big manor house on his own after his wife and daughter die in a tragic car accident. Scott (John Russell) rents Cheesman Manor from the Denver historical society, a house that hasn’t been occupied for 12 years for reasons unknown. Once there he hears mysterious rhythmic bangs coming from the top floor as well as a ball that once belonged to his daughter bouncing down the massive the stairs of this considerable Gothic manor. There is something else in Scott’s new home, something otherworldly. Then, once they find out what that something is, the movie changes tact from haunted house picture into something closer to a mystery.
To return to my opening concern, I wouldn’t call the changeling a horror movie for grown-ups, but a traditional horror movie, recalling an era of genre cinema when they told stories that happened to contain scenes designed to scare and unsettle. Whereas other horror films are designed with scares at the forefront of their focus. There are fabulous moments to induce fear, whether that has the hairs on your arm stand on end or you hide behind your hands, involving an innocuous little ball. However, for my money, there is no scene in Peter Medak’s the Changeling that comes anywhere near the potency of the séance, both live and its recorded states.
Prior to this scene, the camera wanders the dark, quiet halls of Cheesman Manor, John Coquillon’s exquisite cinematography brings this mysterious entity to life in a way that too few fellow ghost movies actually bother with. You know something is there, watching, the camera’s point of view is explicit in communicating that. There’s also the throwing of a ball and the banging of pipes, we know that something is trying to communicate with George C. Scott. Then we have the séance. In this scene, the spiritual medium asks questions of the spirit and she scrawls its answers on piece after piece of paper with whirlwind ferocity. This is the most aggressive this ghost has been outside of smashing a window here and there. The scene is ended by a vase being thrown across the room and its occupants escaping just as sharpish. Then, when sat alone in his cavernous abode, Scott replays the recording of the evenings earlier events. What follows is a simple, elegant scene that is nothing less than skin crawling and all that it entails is a meek, softly spoken child answering all the questions. In an age where all our cinematic ghosts are ridiculous pantomime creations who love shouting boo, this is exhilarating… and effortlessly spooky.
Not all of the horror trimmings are as well staged as this, unfortunately. Even though I compared the Changeling to Don’t Look Now, the scene in which the family members die could be described as silly here. This can be chalked up to the changeling’s status as a Canuxploitaiton movie (made in Canada during the 1970s, usually as tax write-offs) – albeit one of the finer examples – hence money wouldn’t have been super plentiful. The other example is the last big scare, a trope in horror movies that sees the director save the biggest and best for last. Here, again, that is little more than silly as it sees Trish Van Devere (Claire Norman) chased out of the house by a wheelchair. When it comes to scaring the audience, Medak is better at moments of slower intent than the aggression that would go onto define the later 1980s titles. Still, because of the potency of the séance or the wandering camera, this is a wholly effective genre picture.
As aforementioned though, it isn’t just a horror movie – the changeling is also a mystery as George C. Scott and, an employee of the historical society, Trish Van Devere try to find out why no-one lives in this gorgeous Gothic manor and just what happened in 1909. It’s in this aspect that Scott makes this an emotional or “grown-up” horror movie. His dogged determination to find out what happened in Cheesman manor all those years ago makes up the lion’s share of the narrative. Before I get into that though, the fate of this house has no real effect on him, he doesn’t own it – he could just as easily leave and rent somewhere else, he has no real stakes there. However, upon learning that the ghost may, in fact, be a very young child – a similar age to his deceased daughter – gives him that personal stake, his purpose is not to solve this mystery but to make amends for his daughter’s death and come to terms with the horrible tragedy that befell her and his wife. The fire in George C. Scott’s belly is powerful stuff, comparable to his turn in Hardcore, although where that Paul Schrader film was informed by extreme disappointment, the changeling goes for loss and mourning – both incredibly powerful motivators. People do crazy things when they are mourning over a lost one, emotions that become even more powerful when tragedy is introduced. Yes, this is a classy, traditional horror movie and if it nailed down only one thing it would be that emotional complexity in George C. Scott’s blistering performance.
But it doesn’t nail only one thing, as well as George C. Scott, the Changeling can boast many an accomplishment. There’s the location, which has justifiably gone down as one of genre cinema’s finest, the slow burn of its horror and the visual gold found therein and the fact that it has to go down as one of the most paired down and relatable icons of 1980s cinema – a decade more renowned for larger than life pop culture than its subtlety. In fact, this has more in common with the horror films that the likes of Roman Polanski, Clouzot or Nic Roeg made over anything born of the 1980s. Sure, there are goofy moments and moments that would be better with a bigger budget, but you can only really judge what is and not what might’ve been. So, if you love horror in all its many guises then Second Sight have released one of 2018’s biggest treats, however, if you are a bit more fixated on the bombastic end of this most horrific of genres then this overlooked gem may be a tad on the slow side for your tastes.