Thirty years of horror: The Changeling (1980)

Chris: The late 1970s and early 1980s gave us a slew of what I call, for lack of a better term, lunkheaded ghost movies. The most famous example is The Amityville Horror (which was based in turn on a lunkheaded ghost book), but there were others. The Changeling falls squarely into that category, but has ambition to transcend it. It probably doesn’t. As an effectively creepy haunted house movie it succeeds, but don’t spend too much time analyzing it. It is the Citizen Kane (or at least How Green Was My Valley) of lunkheaded ghost movies.

After the jump, rosebud was a medallion!

Tom: Considering I don’t really like Citizen Kane and I never watched that series with Zsa Zsa Gabor and that pig, I can’t really comment on your analogy. But this was way too slow and dated for me. Metaphorically, I’m a child of the Paranormal Activity movies. These ancient haunted house yarns don’t really hold up for me.

Chris: The Changeling is a movie in three parts. The first part it is a ghost story, and I think a spooky and effective one at that. There are memorable scenes in the old house. George C. Scott is pretty good at being the guy who’s getting haunted. The banging, the piano, the broken window…these are all a terrific ratcheting of the tension and director Peter Medak — ever the stylist — shoots it wonderfully.

Tom: Well, if you ever wanted to see George C. Scott ambling stiffly around a dusty old house that’s — surprise! — haunted, this is the movie for you. But without a better set-up or more meaningful stakes, none of this works for me. Witness the terrifying power of a piano key playing itself of a rocking chair rocking or a middle-aged character actress at a seance possessed by a ghost with terrible handwriting! No wonder Ouija boards were invented. Eventually the ghost levels up to unlock the ability to break mirrors, jiggle the desks of senators, kill police detectives, set fire to bannisters, and remotely pilot a wheelchair to terrorize TV actress Trish Van Devere.

There’s a scene where George C. Scott uses his trademark George C. Scott bellow to stop the ghost from slamming doors. It’s like a cross between “you kids stop making such a racket or I’m going to come up there” and his motivational speeches to the Third Army in Patton.

Chris: Old George giving this line, “The worst kind of murder…MURDER FOR PROFIT!” was my personal favorite for combining bad writing with worse delivery.

In the second part, it’s a ghost detective story. That works almost as well, because the story is interesting and we’re trying to guess along with the the characters as to what went on inside that house. Unfortunately, at this point in the proceedings the script can’t wait to tell us what’s going on and spoils its own mystery too early and too explicitly. At the same time, it gives the ghost an almost omnipotent set of powers, to the point where I’m wondering why it needs George C. Scott at all. (I should say though, that my favorite scene happens at the end of this part, when we get an awesome top-down shot of them digging up the well. Best not to ask how likely it is that someone would let a stranger they’d just met tear a hole in their foundation and just go with it.)

Tom: I love watching characters do research in the olden days before Google. Poring over property records down at city hall? Going to the library to get a librarian to load up a microfiche? It’s like watching characters smoke cigarettes or use phones with rotary dials. “Operator, get me the number for emergency services,” Scott asks from inside a payphone. A payphone! These period pieces can be so quaint. Remember when the local university had a conveniently labeled “Psychic Department”?

Chris: Where do you think Dr. Venkman works? At any rate, the third part is where things fall apart, and not in a very good way. The writers seem to have painted themselves into a corner and give us a conclusion that’s far too tidy (and kind of stupid and rule-breaky, too.) Worse, I think the conclusion is supposed to feel like justice being done. It’s supposed to feel moral, right? I’m not sure that’s the case though. Watching it again, I have to wonder exactly what it is Senator Carmichael’s done wrong here. Did he cover up murder? I guess so. The film hints at it, but never goes deep enough there to make me hate the guy and wish his fate upon him.

The Changeling stacks up a variety of ghost hunter nonsense into one single, spooky whole. There are seances and spirit writing and conveniently effective library searches and astral projection. There’s a secret room and cobwebs and EVP. That the movie manages to tie all that stuff up nicely together in a way that works pretty well is why it’s worth giving this movie a look. That it fizzles out after that promising beginning is a reason to wish it had done more.

Tom: Look, a Kliban cat! I haven’t seen one of those guys in a while.


That was my favorite scene for how it expresses one of the central tenets of acting. Namely, never share the stage with children, animals, or a Kliban cat.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)