The Changeling, 1980.
Directed by Peter Medak.
Starring George C Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, John Colicos, Jean Marsh, Helen Burns and Madeline Sherwood.
After a personal tragedy, music professor John Russell relocates from New York to an abandoned Victorian mansion on the outskirts of Seattle. However, Russell quickly comes to believe that his new home is home to a dark and sinister presence.
The haunted house has been a staple of the horror genre for centuries, with countless films, TV shows and books telling tales of dusty old buildings hiding dark secrets and supernatural inhabitants that real estate agents always “forget” to mention. While it can be hard to know which ones are worth a look at, I’ve found one that might just be among the best of them. The critically acclaimed multi-award winning Canadian cult horror The Changeling.
On the face of it, The Changeling might seem to follow the prototypical haunted house formula we’ve seen hundreds of times. Man moves into a new house to find it haunted by the ghosts of the previous inhabitants, who often happen to be evil. Man moves out and then decides to maybe sue his estate agent. Rinse, repeat and maybe add a wife and kids to proceedings. While The Changeling possesses many of these familiar elements, it breaks the mould and takes them in directions that you might not expect.
The plot starts off simple enough as John Russell (George C. Scott) realises that his house is haunted by the spirit of a young girl killed in a mysterious accident. Then things take an unexpected turn as the ghost turns out to be someone else entirely. And far from menacing John, it actually needs his help in solving a murder. This plot, with its myriad of unexpected twists, is captivating as it keeps you guessing as to what will be revealed next as things grow ever more complicated. Especially as John’s investigations soon begin to ruffle some political feathers, adding an element of political intrigue that I don’t think I’ve seen in many other haunted house films.
George C. Scott, famed for his towering gravelly Oscar-winning turn in Patton, delivers a suitably quiet and restrained performance as John Russell, the legendarily formidable and powerful actor, slipping much more sympathetic low-key role a grief-stricken widower effortlessly.
Praise should also be given to Melvyn Douglas as Carmichael, a senator with a secret. While his screen time is limited, Douglas delivers a fascinating performance as the apparent villain of the story, playing the role with the appropriate arrogance befitting an entitled politician. However, in a scene in which he is confronted about his secret, we witness a surprising outburst of emotion as Douglas tearfully defends his cruel father as a ‘loving man’.
While not the scariest film in the world, The Changeling does have more than a few moments to have you feeling uneasy. We have the usual barrage of low noises banging in the night, cobweb invested attics and dusty old wheelchairs. This might not sound that creepy, but when coupled with the ghostly voices of a child whispering ‘murder’, it’s pretty damn eerie, especially when paired with the creative (and masterfully executed) point of view shots from the ghost’s perspective.
A séance scene (because every haunted house film needs a séance scene) stands out as my personal highlight. A nerve-shredding sequence in which Scott invites a medium to communicate with the ghost. The mystic proceeding to ask various questions of the spirit while scribbling its answers down on paper. The pencil strokes growing frantic and more violent as the ghost repeatedly and desperately cries ‘HELP’. It’s a great moment that had me glued to the screen with such focus and intensity that its sudden and crashing end made me jump.
At just over 100 minutes, The Changeling moves along at a steady pace, the story never growing so convoluted as to bog things down. However, it does take a while to settle on a plot thread to stick with. Spending much of the first act seemingly deciding whether to go with a tragic ghostly girl or a murdered ghostly boy. One missed opportunity is how it seems to discard a possibly fascinating character arc for Scott after he suffers the loss of his wife and daughter in the opening scene. However, apart from a handful of mentions and a few well-acted moments of Scott grieving, the film misses the chance to use this plot point to add more emotional complexity by perhaps using the ghostly mystery as a means for him to come to terms with his loss.
An intriguing and spooky mystery plot coupled with a captivating central performance from George C Scott, plus some effective scares, ensure that despite its flaws, The Changeling stands out as one of the better haunted house films out there.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★