I don’t know who first came up with the creepy house and creepy child formula for the horror genre. Whoever it was they struck gold. How many horror films have you seen that revolve around a strange child of questionable corporeal status inhabiting a neo-Gothic domicile? From The Exorcist (1973) to The Babadook (2014) the mixture has been a staple of the genre as vampires, werewolves, and brash teenagers choosing poorly thought out holiday destinations. I also know that I can simply look up the first house/child horror on IMDB but that defeats the purpose of this introduction.
Opening with an idyllic family scene that should come with a “Tragedy Occurring In” countdown above it, the film is the story of John Russell (George C. Scott), a New York composer who moves to Seattle to recover from the death of his wife and daughter. Renting an old house from the Seattle historical society, he is informed by the agent Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) that the house has been empty for the last 12 years.
Even if this wasn’t a horror that sentence alone should have set off at least a few alarm bells.
As the weeks pass unexplained activity begins and increases, culminating with Russell discovering a hidden away room and sees the ghost of a child drowned in a bathtub. Anxious for answers Russell and Claire hold a séance and discover a twisted tale of murder, inheritance and false identity concentrated around an elderly Senator, Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), and a spirit that is desperate for justice.
The Changeling is, at its core, an old-fashioned ghost story. The type akin to those of writers like M.R James and Sheridan Le Fanu. Ghost stories tend to be something of their own genre of films, compared with the rest of Horror. They’re methodical were standard horror is chaotic, subtle verses loud. It’s suspense and thick atmosphere, as opposed to gore and jump, scares. Save for some very brief moments you do not see the ghost in the film when you do they’re fleeting moments or memories of the past. There is a maturity to the film that is rare in horror films, supernatural or secular, that adds something of a degree of realism or at least as realistic as a ghost story can be.
Throughout there is an unravelling mystery as Russell pieces together the history of the building. Like a Raymond Chandler novel, each new discovery leads to twists and even more questions about the former living occupants. At times it feels more like a film about a private investigator, an occult detective, than a man trying to rid himself of a ghost. Towards the end, you begin to feel that there is a friendship developing between Russel and the ghost as he realises that the ghost is not there to scare him but is trying to grab his attention.
There is a simple and strong rhythm to The Changeling. A slow boil story but steady, it takes its time and doesn’t rush the narrative. Some films will speed through the first act and drag the second on too long but director Peter Medak sets the pace to craft the tale. The eeriness of the house is conveyed through stark; wide-angle shots that fix the action in the mid-ground of the frame adding to the emptiness of the building. The shot count is low through the film, with the camera following, at a distance, through pans and slow dolly zooms. Watching, it almost feels like the viewer has intruded on the scene; that we are an invisible voyeur to the action and have become the ghost ourselves.
There is a strangeness to the acting, no doubt helped by excellent performances from Scott and Van Devere. Scott brings an understandable world-weariness to Russell while Van Devere brings across turmoil in Claire as she is caught up in bizarre circumstances beyond her experience. But there is no growth, no arc in either of them. Russell is already coming out of his shell of grief by moving to Seattle while Claire, bereft of a character background, remains the same. Within that restricted arc, however, both actors work with what they have to go with to bring their best across. That said, the voice of the ghost is completely wrong for the tone of the film, too loud and clear it at times sounds like an adult trying to impersonate a child, at others, it sounds like someone calling from the other room.
The Blu-Ray comes with an audio commentary with director Peter Medak and producer Joel B. Michaels, four featurettes on the production and the Cinema Trailer and TV Spot.
A ghost story mystery made with precision and dedication that is sadly lacking in most horror films today, The Changeling is a big screen version of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971 – 1978).
Dir: Peter Medak
Scr: Russell Hunter, William Gray
Cast: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas
Prd: Joel B. Michaels, Garth H. Drabinsky
DOP: John Coquillon
Music: Rick Wilkins
Runtime: 107 minutes
The Changeling (1980) is out on Blu-Ray 20th August 2018.