The Changeling (1980)
Written by William Gray & Diana Maddox
Directed by Peter Medak
Does tragedy make a person more open to other planes of existence? If we come close to death or experience, profound loss, are we then able to brief make out the shades of another world that exists within our own? The Changeling explores these ideas in a tightly crafted and well made haunted house picture. Long before the days of Blumhouse, this was a movie that trafficked in many of the same tropes and themes but didn’t need to lean into empty jumpscares or tired formulas to keep audiences interested. That isn’t to say this is a perfect film, but it is made by people who understand what is genuinely horrific about existence.
John Russell (George C. Scott) is on a winter vacation in upstate New York when his wife and daughter are hit and killed by a motorist. Russell decides to close up his life on the East coast and heads out to Seattle, Washington, to continue his work as a composer and music lecturer. Home ends up being a mansion, the local historical society rents out. It’s big and roomy, so John doesn’t quite get a chance to explore every corner before settling into a new routine. Strange events happen, glass shattering outwards, doors slamming, a rhythmic clanging of the pipes. As John looks closer, he discovers a hidden room with a music box and a child-sized wheelchair. A seance leads to significant revelations, and the tragic events in the house are seemingly tied to prominent senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas).
Whereas some haunted movies are all about jolting the audience, The Changeling is interested in telling a story. A lot of time is spent, allowing the atmosphere of the house to wash over the audience. Halfway through the film, there is a masterful seance scene that manages to build a sense of terror without resorting to jump scares or unnecessary gore.
The scene is shot so that it builds tension in the viewer as we feel like with each question from the medium, we are inching closer and closer to something dangerous. The aftermath, where John rewinds the audio recording of the event and begins to hear a voice answering faintly, is unnerving, and the vision he is granted by the spirit adds another layer of horror. Additionally, we get an image of a little girl seeing a well in the floor of her bedroom with a dead boy’s body climbing to the surface that is brilliant. These grand moments of horror are built up to feel like a satisfying payoff to the story that is being laid out. They never overstay their welcome.
The part of the picture I didn’t care for is how John’s personal struggle, working through his grief over the loss of his family, disappears after that seance. He becomes focused on helping the spirit find peace and going after the living who bear responsibility. This shift made me feel like I had little investment in John; personally, he became a plot delivery device to bring resolution to the ghost story. There’s never a moment where I felt his character arc get closure, and we see him grow in his understanding of death. Actor George C. Scott is capable of some fantastic performances, but here he seems so plain and straightforward.
The film’s conceit that a powerful man has benefited from the secret, forgotten, and buried dead is a potent one. The horror ends up not being the spirit as much as what happened to that poor soul in its short life. The callous way the child was discarded gives justification to the violent tendencies of the presence, but the villain of the story ends up being someone who can’t be brought to justice. Therein we relate to the frustration of the dead, unable to find peace, and forced to wreak havoc on anyone who chooses to live in its home.