Review: The Changeling

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Perhaps it’s looking back from the vantage point of a cinematically uninspiring summer that makes The Changeling seem such inoffensive fun. The qualities that The Changeling can boast—a clean, controlled look, a handful of chills, the feeling that the filmmakers are not about to shortchange us even if they’re not going to be particularly inventive—are exactly the qualities missing from the disappointing slew of first runs that turned up during June. I’ll disclose, too, a reason I was predisposed toward liking The Changeling: I’m in it. When music prof George C. Scott, having relocated in the Great Northwest after his wife and child were killed in an accident, begins his first day as lecturer, well, I’m one of his students. (Dead center, middle aisle, red flannel shirt—can’t miss me.) Anyway, if I were to write a negative review, I had the perfect lead-in: I happened to find myself in the men’s room at the same time as the director, Peter Medak, and—OK, the world may as well know—after he went to the bathroom he didn’t wash his hands. Writing this dump job I could glide into the observation that yeah, that’s the way he makes movies, too, and is The Changeling ever untidy…. Then Medak had to go and ruin my opening by making a slick, effective movie.

In fact, there are some fine quirky moments: the bouncing of a ball down a flight of stairs, the sound impossibly amplified; the way we see the death-by-car-crash of a flunky who had been menacing Scott (we don’t follow the flunky as he leaves Scott’s house, in fact we stay with Scott examining himself in the hall mirror with a Good-Lord-am-I-really-cracking-up look that is absolutely necessary in a movie like this; then the mirror really does crack, a glass splinter bloodying Scott’s cheek as his reflection is replaced by the upsidedown, bloodied face of the bad guy, now dead behind the shattered windshield of his overturned car). There are just enough of such quirky moments to begin to convince one that this movie really has something going for it. But let’s not get carried away. One of the conventions that is met and fulfilled is the big spooky mansion, suitable for prowling through on dark and stormy nights. Scott moves into this huge place (discovered through a rather ominous historical-preservation society) all by himself—a fact which has been jumped on in just about every review I’ve read: why does he choose this house, and why does he continue to pry open locked doors in the dead of night, etc.? (The same people who whine about these plausibility-stretchers, which are really just standard horror-film requirements, are those who can’t understand why so much of The Shining is shot in genre-rebuking daylight.)

Scott, a man with a tragic family history, unravels a mystery surrounding another, hidden family tragedy: a boy was killed in the house many years ago so that he could be quietly replaced with a different boy, a healthy one, less likely to die off inconveniently and separate the paternal assassin from the fortune of which he had custody; moreover, this changeling proved to be most energetic and willful once he had the fortune in his grasp (selective genetics carried to an extreme here). The link between the ghost of the sickly true heir and the Scott character is loneliness: seeing that justice is served—even for the dead—gives Scott a reason to live. Once he has gone through the experience—fighting stifling bureaucracy and dangerous men proves more difficult than battling ghosts—Scott’s own demon is exorcised, and the house is burned (burns itself?) to a cinder. Two people have reached out through space and time to cooperate in an endeavor that brings an eminently healthy conclusion: one is allowed to rest in peace and one is ready to live again. Not a bad conclusion for a movie from which you expect only a rollercoaster ride through an old dark house.

© 1981 Robert Horton

THE CHANGELING
Direction: Peter Medak. Screenplay: William Gray and Diana Maddox, after a story by Russell Hunter. Cinematography: John Coquillon. Production design: Trevor Williams. Music: Rick Wilkins; conducted and arranged by Ken Wannberg. Production: Joel B. Michaels and Garth H. Drabinsky.
The players: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Bernard Behrens, Roberta Maxwell, Chris Gampel, Madeleine Thornton-Sherwood, Barry Morse, John Colicos, Jean Marsh; and introducing Robert Horton.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.