The Changeling (1980)

Peter Medak has one of the most all over the places IMDB credit pages ever. He’s directed everything from the Peter Sellers Satanic farce The Ruling Class to the made-for-TV movie The Babysitter to Zorro, The Gay BladeThe Krays; Romeo Is BleedingSpecies II and episodes of The Wire and Carnivale.  Here, he made a “based on true events” tale inspired by the book by author Russell Hunter, who alleged that these events actually happened to him.

John Russell (George C. Scott, bringing the A list talent) has moved from New York City to Seattle in the wake of the deaths of his wife and daughter. He’s moving into a huge Victorian mansion all by himself, thanks to love interest, real estate agent and local historical society member Claire Norman (Scott’s wife Trish Van Devere, The Hearse).

The strangeness starts right away, with loud sounds every morning at 6 AM, a hidden room complete with an ancient wheelchair, his daughter’s rubber ball bouncing all over the house, an awesome seance scene, rumors of a girl killed by a coal cart and the conspiracy that powerful Senator Joseph Carmichael was really a replacement child adopted to keep his father wealthy.

Just because this movie tries to keep it classy doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. The scene where the mirror explodes and reveals the police detective’s dead face before his accident is really effective. And the scene where the Senator climbs the flaming steps is perfectly shot.

Medak wasn’t the first choice to direct this. Originally, Performance and Demon Seed director Donald Cammell — who claimed to have bounced on Aleister Crowley’s knee as a baby — and Tom Jones director Tony Richardson both started work before leaving due to creative differences.

In 1988, Lamberto Bava directed a made-for-TV film called Until Death that was marketed as The Changeling 2. It was written by Dardano Sacchetti and is one of the reasons why Lucio Fulci stopped working with him. Fulci claimed to have written the story based on The Postman Always Rings Twice. His claim was that Sacchetti used the Fulci name to get the script to seen by producers and once they did, he took his name off it.

Regardless, this is a great movie. It’s a bit slow by today’s standards, but you can see its influence in all manner of haunted house films. According to Mendak, “I was in London at the BAFTA Awards and Guillermo was screaming, ‘You’re my mentor! You’re my mentor! I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Your movie The Changeling is just a masterpiece.’ It’s just nice to hear that from fellow directors whose work I love and respect.”

I’m always amazed that the entire front of the house is a facade. That’s moviemaking magic at its best, really. I’m also amazed that Mendak came onto the project with only a month’s lead time, yet was able to rely on his experience of watching the making of The Haunting.

You can watch this on Shudder with and without commentary by Joe Bob Briggs. Want to get even more? Then get the new re-release from Severin, complete with plenty of documentaries and commentaries that will totally improve your knowledge and love of this haunted house film.

2 thoughts on “The Changeling (1980)”

  1. […] Were you excited to see William Katt? Well, he dies around five minutes in, the victim of a car crash that leaves his daughter in a wheelchair — the kind of wheelchairs that old ladies roll around in and leave in their bedrooms to haunt you (see Burnt Offerings). Like do they even make wicker wheelchairs any more? This also holds true for The Changeling! […]

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