Not only is Peter Medak’s The Changeling a chilling ghost story, but it also plays around with genre tropes and audience expectations in ways which make it very different to your average haunted house film.Ghost stories have been told around the world for so long that none of us alive today know what the very first spooky story was. Despite the many changes and advancements human society has undergone over the centuries two things about us have remained constant – our fascination with death and the supernatural, and our desire to be told a tale which will send a shiver down our spines.
The Horror genre has long been popular and successful in both literature and film. The first ever Horror film to be made was The House Of The Devil(1896). The success of the Universal Monster movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and all those spooky Val Lewton productions, proved that film audiences had a taste for all things frightening. While screen monsters and killers were depicted as being as scary and grotesque as possible, ghosts on the other hand were often just used to bring about very brief scares, or were used as sources of comedy for much of the classic film era(think of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit or of the Topper films for example).
Once the 1960’s rolled around, the screen ghost story drastically changed to become far scarier, darker and deeper, both psychologically and emotionally. Ghosts were no longer there merely to provide brief shocks or laughs. Films such as The Innocents and The Haunting remain the ultimate ghost/haunted house films for many fans of the genre. Horror films of the 1970’s, with the exception of a few titles such as The Legend Of Hell House and The Amityville Horror, were more about slasher horror rather than supernatural scares.
Slasher horror seemed to be what most filmmakers and fans of the genre were digging at the time, and for the most part it has to be said that not much seems to have changed if today’s horror flicks are anything to go by. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great slasher flicks out there and on occasion I don’t mind watching them, but for me nothing beats a good supernatural or psychological horror film.
In 1980 a film came along which I consider to be the last truly great haunted house film. The unsettling Canadian film The Changeling is the film which famously turned a bouncing ball into one of the most frightening objects that you will ever see. The film was shot on location in various parts of Canada and America, including New York(location work at the Lincoln Centre), Seattle and Vancouver. The majority of location filming took place in British Columbia.
The film was written by Diana Maddox and William Gray. The script is based upon playwright Russell Hunter’s(his first name becomes the surname of the main character in the film) claims of the supposedly true supernatural events that he experienced while living in the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Cheesman Park,Denver,Colorado, in 1968. The film is directed by Peter Medak(The Ruling Class, The Krays)and produced by Joel B. Michaels and Garth Drabinsky. The eerie score is by Canadian composer Rick Wilkins. The film’s title is inspired by the word changeling, which in folklore is the name given to a human-like fairy child left in place of a stolen human one.
John Russell(George C. Scott)is a composer who is trying to reassemble the pieces of his life following the tragic deaths of his wife Joanna(Jean Marsh)and their daughter Kathy(Michelle Martin)in an horrific traffic accident that occurs while the family are on holiday. This man has been witness to one of the worst moments of horror anyone could possibly experience.
Now lonely and wracked with grief, John Russell moves out of his home, and at the gentle urging of some friends, rents a Victorian house in Seattle, Washington, which is under the care of the local Historical Society. Claire Norman(Trish Van Devere) an agent of the Preservation Society shares the history of the house with him and he agrees to rent. John and Claire become friends and John takes on work as a music teacher. A little while after he’s moved in John begins to be plagued by weird noises and frightening occurrences in the house. He and Claire research the history of the house and unearth an horrific discovery.
After a medium is invited to the house to determine whether or not the disturbances are caused by spirits, things take a very interesting turn indeed. Not only does John become convinced that the supernatural is very real, but it is also at this point that The Changeling becomes a film which plays around with audience expectation and with traditional haunted house tropes. The film does a sharp left turn and not only turns into an intriguing mystery thriller, all be it one which also includes more than a few moments of horror, but also turns into a moving tale of obtaining justice from beyond the grave.
John and Claire discover that the house is haunted by the angry and distressed spirit of a boy called Joseph Carmichael. He was the heir of the original owners of the house, but was murdered by his father because he was a very sickly child. The father then told staff/associates etc that he was sending his son abroad in the hopes of improving his condition.
The murder was kept hidden, and even worse than that, Mr. Carmichael replaced his son with an orphan boy of the same age and similar appearance, and it is he who is sent abroad as the Carmichael heir. When he returns years later all grown up and healthy, nobody is any the wiser that this is not the real Joseph whose health has improved over the years. Joseph seeks revenge on his replacement, who is now an American Senator(Melvyn Douglas), from beyond the grave. The supernatural events Joseph is responsible for in the house are his way of trying to get John Russell to help him uncover the injustice done to him.
What I like most about this film is the character of John Russell. He is not a man who is scared easily. It could be said that he reacts perhaps too calmly to sharing a house with a ghost, but considering that he has just been through something so horrendous, it could be that everything else rather pales in comparison to seeing the loves of his life killed before his eyes.He’s not so phased any more, even by something that most people normally would be.
When the supernatural events do begin, John isn’t instantly quaking in his shoes convinced they must be supernatural in origin. Nor does he run away in blind terror when it becomes obvious that Joseph’s ghost is real. He also isn’t on the phone to the local priest begging him to come round and douse the house in holy water. In fact he actually becomes the defender of the ghost and in a way a protector of him, and he doesn’t rest until he’s uncovered the truth about Joseph’s murder. This, coupled with the fact that the horror elements present in the film aren’t predictable and familiar, is something which helps makes us feel this film is bringing something different and fresh to the genre. It’s also worth bearing in mind that considering that Joseph’s ghost is revealed to be real, does that then mean that John’s wife and daughter are also ghosts who are stranded at their place of death, seeing as how they were killed so suddenly and brutally?
I also think that casting George C. Scott for this role was a stroke of genius. He more than earned his $1 million paycheck for this film. George was not only a tough guy in real life, but the former US Marine was also well known for being a hard man on screen. In this film however he gets to show us a much softer side than we are used to seeing. In one heartbreaking scene he breaks down crying thinking of his lost family, it’s a very touching moment and Scott is extremely vulnerable in it. He also plays John as being a very levelheaded man, something which lends a realism to his eventual shift into believing what is going on is being caused by a ghost.
Another aspect of the film which makes it a bit different, is that in addition to the scares, of which there are plenty, there is also a great deal of emotion present in this film.The Changeling is a film about grief, death,loss, loneliness and rage. Loss and pain are ever present in the film – from John losing his family at the beginning and struggling to cope, to Joseph losing his life before he’s even had the chance to really start living it. It’s also a film about how the family unit isn’t always the loving and safe space for some that it always should be. The film also shows us that those in positions of power can get away with even the most horrendous acts being covered up and going unchallenged. Sound familiar? It all hits home because it’s so real and familiar to us. The horror in this film isn’t of the demonic type, it is the horror perpetrated by humans against fellow humans, even against their own flesh and blood. Sadly we know that such horror occurs in real life far more often than we’d all care to admit.
I also love how the film switches from outright horror and creepiness halfway through to become a gripping mystery. This could have easily hurt the film, but instead it feels like the right move and ensures you’re still on the edge of your seat, all be it while peeking through your fingers.
I also love the growing bond developing between John and Claire, something which is helped of course by the fact that George and Trish were married in real life. There’s more than a hint of the possibility that this tender friendship will develop into a romance at some point in the future. While George is great and undoubtedly the star of the film, I personally think Trish delivers the best performance in the film. She is especially good in the scene at the bottom of the stairs, where she goes from crying to becoming rooted to the spot in fear,as she catches sight of something horrendous. Just a brilliant performance.
George and Trish receive fine support from the rest of the cast, several of whom were Canadian. Notable actors who are also in the film include John Colicos, Madeleine Sherwood and Barry Morse. Veteran American actor Melvyn Douglas brings gravitas to the role of Senator Carmichael. It is never fully clear exactly how much the replacement knew about what Joseph’s father did to his son, but it’s clear he knew something, or at least had some suspicions. Melvyn keeps it ambiguous in his performance.
The film is something of a hidden gem. It wasn’t really that well received upon release and had something of a slow burn rise to acclaim, but over the intervening decades its reputation has grown and it has now finally found its fans. The film did receive some love upon release in Canada however. Founded in 1980, the new Canadian film awards The Genie Awards handed out 8 Genie Awards to the cast and crew of The Changeling – including awards for Best Picture,Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction/Production Design for Trevor Williams. George and Trish took home the best Foreign actor and actress awards.
The Production/Art design win in particular was well deserved. Trevor Williams and his team did wonders on this film. For starters the house which features in the film looks like a real house, but it was actually a designed facade placed over the front of an existing smaller property. I was blown away when I learnt it wasn’t a real property, it looks so real that I just assumed it was an old abandoned house they’d found. The stunning interiors of John’s home were also built for the film, and they were shot on interconnected sets at Panorama Film Studios,West Vancouver,British Columbia.
Would love to hear from you if you’re a fan of this one.
4 thoughts on “A Ghost Story With A Difference: The Changeling(1980)”
I really enjoy your style of writing, Maddy. The quality is beyond measure and you have the most interesting things to say. 🙂
This film was on my radar for a long, long time. I just could not get around to finding a way to see it. The movie is not exactly hyped but it has a dedicated following and an extremely solid reputation as being one of the best Horror films ever made. I’ve seen plenty of Horror films in my day so I was naturally intrigued. Low and behold, one late Sunday evening, THE CHANGELING came on one of my film channels. I didn’t care what time it was or when I had to get up in the morning … I was watching it!!
I really appreciated that the manifestation of the paranormal activity occurred at a subtle pace. It was just enough to provoke suspicion and discomfort. The character of John was also very patient and calm, which did not make him run away from what was happening. It really seemed to me that he wanted to help appease this spirit and take away its pain because he was hurting in a similar fashion that not many earthly beings could understand. I don’t think he was exactly at ease in living with a ghost but the significant trauma he went through certainly made him less abrupt in his reactions. Had it been me, I would not have been able to stay in the house for as long as he did. And for sure, I would never have gone into that attic room alone! There were many moments when my skin crawled and John seemed to be as cool as a cucumber. I think the most uncomfortable scene for me was when he was in the well. It was just horrifying on all levels.
It was a real treat to see Melyvn Douglas in this as I loved him as a classic actor. You are absolutely right about the chemistry between John and Claire. Trish’s performance was probably my favourite because it was unpretentious and natural. Her character’s evolution did not unfold as I had initially expected, to my surprise. I discovered her through THE HEARSE, which I’ll write about for an upcoming blogathon.
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Thank you so much, Erica! I can tell it was well worth you staying up late for to watch. Agree with you about that well scene. If that had happened in my house I could never go back in that room. Looking forward to your piece on The Hearse. Trish is quite an underrated actress who I don’t think ever really got the acclaim she deserved. Love her in her Columbo episode too.
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Even though this was filmed in Canada, I could never bring myself to see it. Just reading about it gives me chills. However, I enjoyed your review very much.
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Glad you enjoyed it, Ruth. Hope at some point you can feel able to check it out.
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