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Late to the Party: The Changeling (1980)

by Kelly McNeely

It’s Wednesday, which means it’s time to feel a false sense of comfort about being mid-way through the work week! Also, it’s time for another edition of Late to the Party, the series in which iHorror writers realize we’re horribly behind on some cult classics and fan favorites. As we gradually rectify those genre fandom faux pas, we share our thoughts with you, the reader. This week I took some time to watch a 1980 classic, The Changeling.

I’d been meaning to watch The Changeling for quite some time as it’s a Canadian horror classic. With Canadian Film Day coming up on April 19th, this seemed like an appropriate time to finally check it off my list.

The film follows a composer, John Russell (George C. Scott, Patton), who moves to a gorgeous Victorian mansion in Seattle after the untimely deaths of his wife and daughter. The property is rented from the local historical society and has been vacant for 12 years.

via IMDb

As is usually the case with these scenarios, the house is definitely haunted. John enlists help from historical society agent Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere, The Last Run and – fun fact – wife to actor George C. Scott) to help solve the mystery of what the heck is going on in this dang house.

John holds a séance in his home, secrets are revealed, and the plot thickens.

Playwright Russell Hunter was inspired to write the story of The Changeling after his own haunting experiences at the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Denver, Colorado in the late 1960s. Though the screenplay was written by William Gray and Diana Maddox, the events follow Hunter’s story very closely – with some dramatic flair and embellishment, of course.

via IMDb

I was thoroughly impressed by The Changeling‘s ability to move through the cavernous and stunning mansion with fluid ease. The cinematography is beautifully done; the camera glides through the house to share its love affair with the antique architecture and support the feeling that we’re a silent – spectral? – observer.

When the camera is still, your eye is drawn directly to what the director wants you to see and it evokes emotion and reaction in a fantastic way. The opening scene where we witness the accident that takes the lives of John’s wife and daughter, for example, connects the audience’s attention to the action in a way that we know exactly what is going to happen before the tragedy hits. We see John make this same connection and I physically cringed in anticipation of the big crash.

There’s another scene where John is playing the piano in his new home (one of many – he’s a composer, after all). A door behind him slowly swings open, but because of how the shot is framed and the direction that the door opens, we can’t see who is behind it until the slow creak reaches its dramatic conclusion. It’s brilliant.

Director Peter Medak and Cinematographer John Coquillon really deserve more praise for this film.

via IMDb

The use of sound in The Changeling is also vitally important. The creaks, bangs, and heavy silences work with the orchestral score in a way that initially conveys a sharp dichotomy, but as the film continues, the soft, comforting classical music gives way to a more obviously jarring score.

The music progresses with the film, making the audience feel – or at least hear – the haunting’s escalation.

via IMDb

I do also have to praise this film for telling John’s story in a way that doesn’t shy away from his personal grief. While John is in the process of moving on from his horrific loss, he’s not okay – and that’s actually great to see.

We know John still has these drifting memories of his family. We see his subtle reactions to his daughter’s favorite toy. We witness this grown-ass man in a vulnerable and emotional state.

That being said, he approaches this new mystery in a completely open way. He’s methodical in his search for answers and doesn’t try to convince himself that he’s just tired or seeing things. John does not try to discredit his own feelings or thoughts, which is so important when dealing with any kind of trauma.

It’s oddly refreshing (from a movie made in 1980).

via IMDb

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the actual horror of it all. There are genuinely scary moments here – the séance scene in particular reminded me a lot of the séance in Insidious. It’s easy to see the influence this film had on others in the genre.

I should also give a shout out to the don’t-call-it-a-flashback scene in which we learn about what tragedy happened to the ghost that haunts the house. It’s tense and very unsettling.

via IMDb

Overall, I was surprised by how much I liked The Changeling. You need to expect a difference in pacing with older horror films, absolutely, but the personal elements of the story and characters as well as the stunning composition of the film itself really won me over.


Check back with us next week to see what other parties we’ve been late to!

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