The Changeling (1980)


The Haunting pretty much proved that a film can be scary without a bunch of special effects and props.  In that movie the ghosts are never seen.  Their presence is felt, and the movie has some of the most intense examples of suspense, but never do we get William Castle-style spooks like in Thirteen Ghosts or the the similarly titled The House on Haunted Hill.  The whole thing comes from experiencing the fear along with the characters involved, something Shirley Jackson understood when she wrote the book it was based on. 

Fittingly, Peter Medak worked as one of the crew of The Haunting, and one of his most famous films as a director would be a haunted house movie as well: The Changeling.  Based on an account of supposedly true events written by Russell Hunter and adapted William Gray and Diana Maddox, The Changeling was an outlier at the time when it came to horror films.  This was right at the beginning of the slasher era and horror films were beginning to turn bloodier and more effects-filled.  While Medak certainly didn't pull any punches, this is definitely a throwback to the earlier movies and, although the story it is based on is sketchy, the material is still taken seriously.

John Russell (George C. Scott) is a composer who relocates from New York to Seattle after his wife and daughter are killed in an auto accident.  Still reeling from the grief he believes a change in scenery will help him work, while he also earns money teaching a course at one of the city's universities.  While looking for a place to rent he meets Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere), a representative of the Seattle Historical Preservation Society, who arranges for him to stay an old mansion built around the turn of the century. 

Upon moving in John starts noticing strange things happening.  They eventually lead him to a hidden room in one of the attics and, as his interaction with the spirit becomes more pronounced, he agrees to seance.  The results lead him to discovering that Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) has family that was connected to the house, and the spirit may be wanting to bring a family secret to the light.  Predictably, delving into the private life of a powerful man has its consequences. 

Although The Amityville Horror had somewhat revived the haunted house movie at the time it was largely made in the style of an exploitation film, using the DeFeos' story to throw a bunch of special effects at the viewers.  The Changeling, though also purporting to be based on true events, was made in the fashion of films from a decade or two before.  It's definitely carried by Scott's performance which, throughout most of the movie, is quite calm and accepting until he becomes frustrated as the spirit becomes even more restless once he does what he is supposed to. 

With Scott largely the focus of the film it does lead to a problem when it comes to the other participants.  Trish Van Devere, whom he was married to, gets a large role but it is not as involved as it could have been.  She should have been a full partner in investigating what is happening, but in this case Claire is a vessel for John to spout exposition to.  John Colicos appears as Captain Dewitt, a police officer used as muscle by Senator Carmichael, and Melvyn Douglas plays the senator in one of his last roles.  The senator plays an important role in what is going on, and it is hinted that he is keeping tabs on anyone looking into the past of the mansion, but both Colicos and Douglas are in the movie for a brief period.  Supposedly there was some more background that was cut from the film, which is understandable because not a lot of action happens before the finale.

I admire it for this due to the fact that I always believe that scattering set pieces throughout is great if one is attempting to visually entertain the audience when a story happens to be one that has been told a number of times, but when the story or mystery itself is the focus that major action should be contained in one or two scenes.  The Changeling does that, amping up the tension at a time when its crucial to learn more about the spirit, and then reserving the major action sequence for the end.  The budget for the movie wasn't the biggest, and the final bit is nowhere nearly as effective as quiet scenes like the ball bouncing down the stairs.

I am kind of glad that there wasn't a glut of similar movies after this.  It's fun to look back and think about how older films of this type built up the tension, but too many of them in the same vein would have just become corny.  An example of that is the adaptation of Peter Straub's Ghost Story, which came out the next year and had Melvyn Douglas in his last role.  That came from a higher profile novel that didn't put on any pretense of being real, but it pretty much failed in bringing it to the screen.  Russell Hunter's novel, on the other hand, has so many holes in it that it is even less believable than The Amityville Horror, but The Changeling, as a movie, stands the test of time better than any of those other films.

The Changeling (1981)
Time: 107 minutes
Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas
Director: Peter Medak

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