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That Old Haunted House: The Changeling (1980)

by Steve Habrat

Around the same time that I discovered The Amityville Horror, the mother of one of my close friends found out I was looking into ghost movies and haunted house thrillers. One day, while I was over their house, she lent me The Changeling on DVD. She told me it was one of the scariest movies she had ever seen and that it was a really engaging detective story. With anticipation levels high, I dashed home to watch director Peter Medak’s take on the old haunted house genre. While just as understated as most of the classic haunted house movies, The Changeling has such a bleak and depressing atmosphere that really weighs on the viewer. It can be terrifying of it wants to be, especially when it borrows that famous banging from The Haunting, but it really leaves the viewer an emotionally wreck. Credit could also go to the wonderful George C. Scott, who plays the grieving composer who lost his family in a snowy car accident while on a vacation. The Changeling also holds us close as it cleverly blends in a sharp detective story that certainly has a fascinating if a bit messy payoff when it all comes together at the angry climax. Needless to say, the film was certainly an improvement over The Amityville Horror. It still doesn’t feature a massive demonic pig, which is a huge disappointment but I got over it pretty quick.

While on a snowy getaway, kind composer John Russell (Played by George C. Scott) watches helplessly as his wife and daughter are run over in a horrifying car accident. Following their death, John moves to dreary Washington State and rents a seemingly deserted mansion to try to work through the tragedy. After a few nights in the massive Victorian mansion, John begins to experience strange occurrences which include a terrible banging noise from somewhere in the house at exactly 6:00 am. After a particularly disturbing encounter with an apparition, John soon confides in his realtor, Claire Norman (Played by Trish Van Devere), who urges him to investigate the bizarre activity. As John brings in multiple paranormal investigators, he realizes that some of the activity could be linked to wealthy United States senator Joseph Carmichael (Played by Melvyn Douglas). But as the occurrences continue, John’s mental state and grief is pushed to the limit, especially when the ghost begins to make reference to John’s deceased daughter.

I am reluctant to share too much of The Changeling’s plot, mostly because the anticipation of what will happen next within the story does keep you on the line for nearly two hours. Director Medak applies a slow-build pace that heightens the terror with each little creak, bang, and chandelier shake. Things really get spooky when the characters are stalked through the mansion halls by an old rickety wheelchair that chases them down multiple flights of stairs. While I can say that Medak doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the haunted house table, he does construct some seriously disturbing encounters with the supernatural pest driving John bonkers. The standout sequence is undoubtedly a séance sequence, where the ghost manifests itself through a medium and forces her to write out a number of cryptic messages that plead for help from John. If I were John, I’d think about packing up my suitcase and getting the hell out of that house right then and there. Alas, John doesn’t and he gets in too deep with the angry spirit. Adding to the terror is the lonely, isolated, and broken atmosphere that hangs over John’s head like a black raincloud. It adds so much emotion to the story that it is almost hard to resist The Changeling’s pull.

Easily the best part of The Changeling is Scott as the grieving composer who is trying to piece his life back together. The one touch that I absolutely loved about John was that he doesn’t fall to little pieces when the paranormal activity kicks into high gear. He almost seems detached from it and, dare I say, relieved when it starts because it almost seems to distract his painful thoughts that have etched themselves into his weary face. At one point, he weeps in bed only to have his private moment of sadness clipped short by a loud clanking sound that distracts him from his inner pain. There is almost a love story that develops between John and Claire, the understanding realtor who steps into this paranormal mystery willingly. The two have great chemistry and I was really rooting for a romance between the two but grief just seemed to stand in the way. Douglas is wonderfully cool as Senator Carmichael, who flat out refuses to have his family’s name tarnished by the investigation launched by John. John Colicos shows up as Captain DeWitt, who casts a suspicious eye on John and his stories.

One of the superior cinematic ghost stories, this Canadian horror gem does find its conclusion getting a bit bogged down in the answer-heavy final frames. My one other complaint I have with The Changeling is the silly ghostly voice that echoes through the hallways of the spooky mansion. It seems manipulated and almost a little too friendly, like John is being terrorized by Casper. Despite these two flaws, there is still plenty of dread and unease in The Changeling, making it one that sticks with you long after it ends. Your stomach will fall every time John enters the house after going out. He stops in the doorway, looks around like he is surveying for any apparitions peering down on him, and then slowly eases himself through the rest of the house. You’ll tremble when a ball that belonged to John’s daughter comes bouncing down the grand staircase right to her father’s feet. And I dare you not to leap off your couch when that seriously wicked wheelchair wheels in for the kill. Overall, The Changeling remains stationed just outside the long list of horror classics and I’ve never been able to figure out why. It is a must for those who love character driven terror and it is blast for those who love a good shock. It may not reinvent the haunted house but The Changeling certainly knows how to make the familiar scary as hell.

Grade: A

The Changeling is available on DVD.