Movie Review: The Changeling (1980)

The Old Haunted House movie has changed quite a bit over the recent decades. One cannot have a simple haunting by a lone spirit who needs to have his (or her) soul put to rest anymore; one has to have a portal to hell on the property, some sort of demonic possession, or the scene of some horrible atrocity with dozens of victims in order to attract an audience.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie like that, but it’s too easy for a filmmaker to fall into the trap of using blood and gore as a replacement for a good, honest scare. For an “old school” spooky haunting, you’ve got to go back quite a ways.

John Russell (George C. Scott) is a composer who recently watched his wife and daughter die in a motor vehicle accident. After moping around his New York home for a while, he decides to take a faculty position at his alma mater in Seattle. Perhaps the thousands of miles of separation will help him get himself back together. There, he meets Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere), who works for a local historical society. When she mentions that the society owns a couple of houses that could use tenants, he takes her up on the offer of renting one.

Well, needless to say, that Big Old House already does have a tenant of sorts, and it’s not very keen on sharing the place. It doesn’t take much for Russell to figure out who the spirit is – especially when you’ve got a friend in the historical society. But how do you put the spirit to rest? Especially when there’s only one person around who has any connection at all to the spirit’s death, and they were not involved at all in the commission of the crime or its cover-up?

Director Peter Medak does a good job making the Big Old House look spooky. Dim lighting with off-putting shadows, angles that are just slightly odd, slow tracking shots of the characters…. All quite atmospheric, which helps disguise the fact that there’s really not that much to the story. Russell figures it out a little too easily (heck, the title itself is a huge clue!), and it’s hard to catch where he finds out about the key clue / McGuffin for the third act. I also suspect that there’s supposed to be a budding romance between Russell and Norman, but Medak can’t get seem to get Scott and Van Devere to pull it off. Speaking of the acting, it’s serviceable, which is to be expected from a veteran cast. And no one does anything stupid or irrational. Well, except for the single instance where one of the old ladies at the historical society mentions to Russell that there’s a “problem” with the house. Look, lady, if you believe the house is haunted because of something that happened several decades ago, come right out and say it, OK? It’s a really annoying trope in movies where someone has information vital to the protagonists, yet refuses to do anything more than just hint at it.

I find I’m rather ambivalent about The Changeling; it’s a decent enough movie with a healthy amount of verisimilitude. It just seems to be missing that something that will get a strong recommendation out of me. Give it a look, anyway. Maybe you’ll see something in it that I’m missing.

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