“That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.”
The first time I saw The Changeling, it scared the crap out of me. It was my brother’s eighth birthday party – a sunny Sunday afternoon is about as far from horror as you can get, and yet, I was absolutely terrified. I’m sure being four years old had something to do with it. Still, I remember being in a frozen horror, relieved when it ended, tormented by nightmares for weeks. I hadn’t seen it since then. I knew it wouldn’t terrify me like it did when I was a child, but I hoped it would at least hold up as a competently made film. Thankfully, it did – The Changeling is a classy, stately traditional ghost story, well acted, with considerable pathos.
Composer John Russell (George C. Scott) is a man racked with the agony of having lost his family in a tragic accident. He takes up a teaching post at the behest of his friend, moving into an old estate where he can continue to work on his own compositions and grieve for his wife. Shortly after moving in, he begins to hear strange sounds and see odd events. Is he losing his grip with reality, or is someone, or something attempting to contact him from the other side?
Damn. That opening. Despite a lack of anything supernatural, the stark horrific reality of the opening of The Changeling is truly chilling. It’s hard to think of a monster that could horrify more than watching a man witness the death of his family to chance in a simple, brutal accident, and George C. Scott wears that loss in every frame. Speaking of George, he bears the unfortunate distinction of having appeared in two of the most underrated horror films ever made: The Exorcist 3, and The Changeling. While most people have at least heard of The Exorcist 3, The Changeling sadly remains mostly unknown. No matter – Scott is great in The Changeling, just as he was in The Exorcist 3, bringing weight and believability to the role.
Director Peter Medak does a nice job building mood – this film is all dust and cobwebs and buried secrets. The sound design is excellently creepy and reminiscent at times of The Haunting‘s sublime marriage of sound and camera work. While there’s nothing particularly unique about The Changeling – this is a film that is, at its heart, a throwback to classic ghost stories – it’s a real pleasure to watch a serious ghost story well executed. Fear is admirably built with sound and imagery rather than jump scares – a child’s ball becomes sinister when it bounces down the hardwood steps of an empty house, a rickety wheelchair becomes threatening in a dim, walled-off room. Not everything is perfect – there’s a relationship between George C. Scott’s John Russel and his real estate agent Claire Norman (Scott’s real life wife Trish Van Devere) that never develops into anything at all, and the climax is a bit rushed – but whatever flaws exist, The Changeling has an eerie, inexorable power that few films can match.
The Changeling is a well-made, classy, classic ghost story with wonderful acting and great atmosphere. It’s smart, and filmed with a rare level of respect for the material. If you haven’t seen The Changeling, it comes highly recommended.