“The Changeling” (1980)


At long last I got off my ass (by which I guess I mean I, you know, I sat down on my ass) and watched The Changeling. And I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it, for reasons which will become clear.

This is a pretty good film, see. I like slow supernatural thrillers, and this is very much that. Only it’s exceptionally slow. It reminds me of Ghost Story and The Omen in several ways. All three films feel like they were made thirty years earlier than their actual release dates. In the case of The Changeling, very little happens, besides dialogue, for long, long stretches. But it’s good dialogue by great actors. BUT but I also didn’t pay suuuper close attention to it, because it’s hugely formulaic and slow and just kind of dull.

George C. Scott, who totally owned the brilliant and underrated Exorcist III, plays John Russell, a composer who has recently lost his wife and daughter in a freak car accident. He moves to Washington state, where he rents an incredible old gothic mansion which anyone in their right mind would IMMEDIATELY assume was haunted, but, I dunno, grief? So, you know, Weird Stuff happens, and it turns out that there’s the ghost of a young boy. Russell has to help the boy find peace or something, because ghosts.

There’s a lot more to it than this, of course. Political intrigue figures into the narrative in an unexpected way. The scary elements are just the ghost’s way of communicating with Russell, who’s pretty stoic about the whole thing. (I can’t imagine George C. Scott ever acting scared in the way we’d otherwise expect in a scary movie.) It’s never really frightening, but it’s moody and full of George C. Scott, so… net gain?

Scott himself was a Great Actor (with capital letters!), but not at all a Sympathetic Actor. It’s just hard to care about him in this role. He’s George C. Scott playing George C. Scott, an upper-class, slightly snobby, hard-assed, overachieving skeptic. It’s great to see a powerful old-school actor playing a powerful old-school character; but this film was made in 1980, and as I write this it’s 2018, and alas, some things don’t hold up well. Even in 1980, Scott’s acting must have felt exceptionally old-fashioned.

Worst of all, it’s all just kind of boring, which is the worst thing a scary movie can be. (Slow does not equal boring, but unfortunately this is both.) Also, I don’t understand Russell’s motivation for solving the mystery of Joseph’s death. Why not just leave? Why waste so much time trying to figure it out when he could have just bought a nice condo down by Pike Place or whatever? (I have no idea if there are or ever have been condos down by Pike Place. It’s just one of like two Seattle landmarks I know.)

I’m sure others have noted this, but there’s a particular sequence that clearly influenced The Ring. A ghost whose body is buried in a well beneath a house is a major plot point, and the protagonists have to dig it up and get the police involved–I can only imagine that Suzuki Koji was a fan of The Changeling, because it’s too similar to be a coincidence.

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