I don’t know why I avoided The Changeling for so long. I’ve been aware of it forever and it comfortably occupies that third tier classic status – of which I’ve seen countless other (worse) entries. It could be – and this is pretty embarrassing to admit – that I was thinking of Clint Eastwood’s movie Changeling (NOT a haunted house story) and wasn’t super thrilled to dive into a 40 year old psychological thriller about parenthood.
And that’s not what this is! A cynic could call this a paint by numbers ghost story, if it weren’t for the movie’s age, whereby it’s likely that it established many of those numbers itself. The Ring, The Conjuring, and even Hereditary are all following variations on this exact formula. Someone notices some subtle, benign paranormal activity in their home, which begins to escalate, at which point they seek the services of a couple kooky spiritual investigators and/or conduct an investigative campaign on their own (The Changeling does both, FYI). Ultimately uncovering a violent, tragic catalyst for the haunting, the main character(s) embark on a final desperate effort to put the vengeful spirits to rest.
George C Scott carries the movie as John Russell, grieving widower and renowned composer living alone in an old, crumbling, rented mansion. Whenever a ghost story begins with the main character experiencing an immense tragedy, one rightly assumes that said tragedy will come to play a central role in either the haunting itself or the character’s response to it. Not here! It’s not that it goes unremarked upon, but the entire tragic backstory could have been excised from the movie without impacting the rest of the plot. It seems to serve only to provide justification for a single man to be living in what looks to be a 15 bedroom house.
Taken as an early exercise in a now-familiar template of haunted house movies, The Changeling holds up pretty well. Certain choices are hilariously dated: dramatic camera zooms, consummate sideburns and bellbottoms, etc., while other aspects of the pacing and plot development are strikingly modern. It has a pretty good density of scares, distributed between atmospheric and jump scares, and acting that’s rarely over the top. It feels of a piece with The Amityville Horror, but it’s better than that schlock piece.
Of particular note is the now-obligatory seance scene. There’s been a million of ’em in a million horror movies, but this one is outstanding and holds up even today. That the medium is almost creepier than any ghost is an interesting twist – speaking in a trance-like monotone and scribbling wildly on paper until words start to form. This made me realize how much I adore these “contacting the dead” scenes in movies. It’s usually the point when things kick into high gear.
I should also mention that the Ring comparison I made above is more appropriate than you might thing. There’s an exploration of an abandoned, boarded-over well and what lies at the bottom that simply HAS to be an influence on the original Ringu…