A film review by Justin Montgomery
The Changeling (1980) is, simply put, terrifying. The Victorian ghost story distilled, the film is exemplary in its use of tension, terror, and horror. Rather than relying on shock or disgust, The Changeling focuses on atmosphere to create a sense of tangible unease in the viewer, which differed greatly from the gore-heavy, hyper-explicit visuals of horror released in 1980. This gives the film an air of quality that many horror films lack–it is more reminiscent of a Gothic novel rather than a cheap 80’s killer flick, and thus rises above the junk-food horror of the year.
The story follows John Russell (George C. Scott), a music composer and professor, who witnesses the death of his wife and daughter while on vacation in upstate New York. He is thrown adrift, moving to Seattle to start over, and procures a job working as a music professor at a local University. In his search for housing, Russell is directed to the local Historical Society, where he meets Claire Norman (Trish Van Deere), who rents him an enormous estate. The house is a Victorian mansion—a daunting, intimidating, decrepit manse that dominates the landscape. It is revealed that the house has been uninhabited for 12 years. The reason why is revealed in a brilliant line of dialogue:
“This house is unfit to live in.
It doesn’t want people”.
Not long after moving in, Russell begins to experience odd, unexplainable phenomena, and it isn’t long before a seance is held in the home to try and communicate with the source of the supernatural happening. During a haunting sequence, we discover the source is the spirit of a small child named Joseph.
There’s an odd comfort in an old-fashioned, slow-burn ghost story, and The Changeling is just that: a tale where you can settle in and get comfortable—until it scares you, that is. It is one of the few films which have genuinely unnerved and terrified me. The use of auditory cues to signal the paranormal events is effective, despite the dated quality. The set design absolutely nails the Victorian aesthetic via the enormous, intricately adorned mansion, which creates an atmosphere of dread and gives the film a nice touch of antiquity.
It is here that the film eclipses into the realm of the Gothic, as it contains many of the core bones which make up the genre’s disturbed skeleton–the manse is the ruined castle that dominates the landscape; the characters hold a reverence for old things and (albeit only a slightly) consider modern society as ‘fallen’ in comparison to the past; characters are plagued by madness; dopplegängers abound; monstrosity overtakes the mundane; and supernatural elements are the driving force of the story. This only adds to the sense of quality which this film contains, as it reads more like a novel, which I appreciated, and is reminiscent to Susan Hill’s phenomenal novel The Woman in Black and the superb film that adapted it.
One of the strongest elements of the film is how it utilizes foreground/background differentiation to embellish the house’s oppressiveness–where the camera pan follows a character but settles on an object in the foreground, allowing us to watch character actions in the background, creating an interesting illusion; this house is eternal, it is malicious, and the characters which find themselves within are inconsequential to the timelessness of the supernatural. The characters shrink into the background as they approach the house, while it stands unchanged, immutable. The best example of this is in the scene where Russell first approaches the house.
The camera begins focused on John Russell, the perspective shifts–we start, focused on the immediate cognition of our protagonist–but, as the camera slowly fades away and focuses on foreground objects, Russell slides into anonymity and the house’s looming, brooding presence becomes something eternal and commanding attention while Russell–now merely movement in the background–meanders on screen. It’s brilliant camera work, the equivalent of narration in prose. There are several shots of the house itself where characters interact off-screen, turning the house into a character, rather than a location.
This decidedly Gothic charm serves as the catalyst which propels the film forward and embellishes the core mystery—we want to know not only about the spirit, but of its home.
As with the house, one of the most effective ways the film scares the viewer is through objects, another staple of the Gothic ghost story. Objects are what define a person once they’ve passed, as they’re the only tangible remnants of someone’s life. I will refrain from spoiling the movie because the film isn’t widely viewed—as it (undeservedly) sits outside the pantheon of 80’s horror greats—but the behavior of objects, acting out of their supposed place and seemingly of their own accord, is terrifying in and of itself, tapping into the uncanny and effectively creating terror, and is a constant throughout the film. Emphasizing the monstrosity of the mundane is especially effective in The Changeling. The supernatural implication, that these objects are being acted upon and used by something beyond living, creates a palatable atmosphere of dread, allowing the film to abandon the crutch of shocking imagery or loud jump-scares.
A haunted house is nothing without a victim to exert itself upon, and George C. Scott plays the part perfectly. In his performance, Scott controls the screen with a rugged, haunted air of a man who has lost everything and has resigned himself to the grimness of the world. Stoic yet tender, Scott breathes life into the character of John Russell and proves to be the perfect sparring partner for Joseph. Joseph is an interesting force, an amalgam of innocent child and malevolent specter. In one of the best scenes of the film, we discover Joseph’s identity during a seance.
The seance depicted may well be one of the most unnerving, terrifying seances I’ve ever seen. The medium, portrayed by the excellent Helen Burns, stares into the camera in a trance, asking questions of Joseph in a croaking, grating voice as she fully engages in automatic writing. Her voice is what seals the deal, and it can’t really be stated in print how unnerving the performance is. You simply have to see it, it’s a treat.
After the seance, John views the paper where the medium has written down the name of the spirit and answers to various questions, but remains unconvinced–he heard nothing during the event. Upon listening to recordings, however, he hears Joseph’s voice, and it flips a paternal switch within him. Joseph reaches out to John because he can sense the loss of his children. Joseph taps into John’s paternal strength and gives the character a strong motive.
The film not only explores the haunted house but explores the haunted individual, as well. In glorious Gothic fashion, The Changeling utilizes subtlety and suggestion to inspire horror and terror throughout, finishing with chaos and grandiose. This disparity allows the finale of the film to achieve maximum effect in scaring the viewer, as we simply aren’t prepared for what happens. The movie teases and goads the audience along, but subverts itself by becoming aggressive rather than introspective.
As stated before, this is a film you simply must fall into. A stormy night with the lights out is the perfect backdrop for viewing. There’s a lot to unpack, but most of it hits better when experienced yourself.
Ultimately, The Changeling is an effective, terrifying film that is among the best of all time, as it combines excellent storytelling, music, acting, and set design.
My name is Justin Montgomery, and I’m an author. I’ve loved literature since I was a child, and my life has revolved around stories, whether they be books, film, comics, or otherwise. I’ve always gravitated toward them, found comfort in the language, the characters, the impossible worlds conjured by authors and brought forth onto the page. It was no surprise when I discovered that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
I’ve also gravitated toward horror ever since I can remember, but it did not actualize until me and a friend traumatized ourselves by watching “The Grudge” in sixth grade. The sleepless nights which followed were punctuated by deciphering the malicious figures in the shadows on the ceiling and wondering whether every groan or creak in the attic was just the wind or the reanimated corpse of a vengeful spirit.
It was the most terrifying yet exhilarating experience I’ve ever had, and it became my goal to replicate that in others.