The Changeling

(Peter Medak, Canada, 1980)

BY JOSÉ TEODORO | January 24, 2024

For all the freaky poltergeist activity and vivid visions of murder to come, The Changeling (1980) dispatches its most abysmal horrors in its opening minutes, when its protagonist witnesses the deaths of his wife and child under the wheels of a truck, in the sort of scene that inevitably impacts older viewers more profoundly than younger ones. Following the decade that saw the proliferation of the slasher subgenre, with its predilection for nubile bodies in varying states of flamboyant desecration, there is the sense that this relatively old-timey, gore-free haunted-house tale was bringing adult sensibilities back to the form. Its central characters are middle-aged professionals concerned with grief, justice, and real estate.

Inspired by uncanny events experienced by playwright Russell Hunter while living in an old manor in Denver in the 1960s, William Gray and Diana Maddox’s screenplay follows John Russell (George C. Scott), a New York composer who, in the wake of his unimaginable loss, takes a teaching position in Seattle, where he rents an immense gothic mansion from Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere), a charismatic agent with the historical society. The property’s been vacant 12 years, no doubt due to local rumors of bad juju—a busybody colleague of Claire’s warns that the house “doesn’t want people.” But John, perhaps steeled by the knowledge that nothing worse could ever happen to him, seems unfazed. (Admittedly, Scott’s uncharacteristically restrained performance makes it hard to distinguish acting choices from lack of investment.) Even when inexplicable banging from the bowels of the mansion wakes him every morning, even when he finds an old music box that plays a tune he’s just composed and recorded, even when a rubber ball he’d tossed in the river comes bouncing down the stairs, rather than pull up stakes, John soberly determines to get to the bottom of this strangeness.

The most obvious precedent for The Changeling is Don’t Look Now (1973), drenched as it is with fatherly loss and unsolicited clairvoyance. Compared to Nicolas Roeg’s time-collapsing editing strategies, however, director Peter Medak takes a more workmanlike approach to his material, leaning heavily on pedestrian scoring where silences might have been hair-raising, and making a meal out of every establishing shot and postcard landmark—hey, it’s the Space Needle!—perhaps as a way of disguising the fact that most of this Canadian production was shot in British Columbia. Where Medak’s execution shines is in its delicate handling of the story’s palimpsest of tragedy and its transition into a supernatural detective story: a large portion of The Changeling has to do with the confusion around what sort of misfeasance took place in the mansion 70 years before, and to whom. John initially thinks the ghost is a little girl—like his own dead child. Indeed, John’s receptivity to the house’s spooky hijinks seems tied to his personal devastation, to the degree that he nearly imposes details of his loss onto the one that transpired in the distant past, while the ghost petitions John to rectify a long-buried crime. The film was well-received in its time and has accrued cult status in the decades since, and my best guess is that its enduring allure can be attributed to both its searing prelude and its unusual ratio of generic tropes and to idiosyncratic detours. 🩸


is a freelance critic and playwright.

X: @chiminomatic

How to see The Changeling

Severin Films has also released a Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD edition.
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