The Changeling (1980)

The Changeling, 1980; directed by Peter Medak; starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas

The 1970s were a golden age of American Film in general and of American genre film too.   Horror is one of the many genres that had so many fantastic (and some delightful, yet not really fantastic) films released in the 70s – The Exorcist, The Omen, Jaws, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre just to name a few.    The haunted house picture reached its zenith in the early 70s with such features as The Amityville Horror, but by the end of the decade it faded and was supplanted by the slasher film (Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc etc).

Peter Medvak’s The Changeling is a bit of a last gasp for the 1970s haunted house picture, but it’s a pretty good gasp.  It stars the irrascible George C. Scott as a NYC based classical pianist/composer John Russell who loses his wife and daughter in the opening moments of the film.   Soon we are away with Russell fleeing the NYC and the memories of his lost family to a sort of homecoming in Seattle, where he relocates at his alma mater (never named) to teach and compose.   One of the friends he stays with mentions knowing someone in the local preservation society who could help him find a house to rent.  Because apparently preservation societies help preserve homes by renting them out.

We cut immediately to Russell presumably waiting for this preservation society rep in front of a spooky, abandoned old mansion that is probably exactly the picture you see in your mind when someone says “haunted house.”  The rep, Claire, does arrive and together they drive to the house.  Before we can get all the O’s out in “Booo” they are discussing lease terms.

After settling into this house, very quickly the spooky things begin to occur.  Russell begins to investigate the history of the house, and manages to enlist the help of his new preservation society friend Claire. Many of your standard haunted house tropes are here: doors opening and closing on their own, a hidden in plain sight room that had shelves mounted over the door, a creepy music box, the requisite odd people offering cryptic responses and red herrings as the house is being investigated.  They even hold a seance. It’s actually a very creepily effective scene.

The Hungarian born Medvak is a bit textbook definition of the journeyman director.  He bounced back and forth between Film and TV. He directed episodes from such TV series as Magnum PI, Hart to Hart and Beauty and the Beast, but also directed some fairly acclaimed films, like Ruling Class, starring Peter O’Toole, and one of my favorite 90s neo film noirs, Romeo Is Bleeding with Gary Oldman and Lena Olin (Oh Lena. Oh.  Lena.)

Though the house hides a particularly dark secret (don’t all haunted houses?) The Changeling doesn’t offer anything out of the ordinary or unique for a horror film.  It is, however, a very effective 1970s haunted house film, despite it’s 1980 release.  And the cast, anchored by George C. Scott, give such measured, grounded performances that the whole film has a bit more weight than the typical haunted house film as a result.

 

 

Dr. Vorhees