Paranormal & Supernatural in Review” The Changeling (1980)
Release date: March 1980
Director: Peter Medak
Staring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas
Synopsis: “A man staying at a secluded historical mansion finds himself being haunted by the presence of a spectre.”
Review: “The Changeling: Why Do You Remain?” by William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash)
Tales of haunted houses trace their eerie legacy back to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764 to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher from 1845, and beyond. As horror goes, nothing seems to be creepier than having one’s own home become a threat. The sanctuary turns against its owner and the protective womb of wood and stone may become a tomb.
Transferring such a tale from page to screen may not be an easy one, but in this case, and although it’s never mentioned in the opening or closing credits, The Changeling is based upon Russell Hunter’s personal story of the supernatural, written with perfection for the screen by William Gray and Diana Maddox.
If the writers’ goal was to create an unsettling mystery for the audience, they certainly hit all the right notes.
The Changeling is director Peter Medak’s haunted house tale from 1980 that follows widower John Russel (George C. Scott) as he tries to navigate an unexpected new life. After losing his wife and daughter in a car accident he witnessed, he leaves New York City for a teaching position in Seattle.
A well-established composer, Russel has both money and prestige, but he could care less. The loss of his family has consumed him and he must traverse the stages of grief that won’t wane any time soon.
Even so, he rents a historical home in Seattle and tries to engage in a new reality. Unfortunately for him, the old mansion has an old-time resident: The ghost of an eight-year-old boy that just doesn’t walk the halls, he wants Russel to take action.
Granted, Russell and family had a large apartment in Manhattan that would have cost a fortune, but this mansion off the beaten path is gigantic. It may not have the grandeur of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, but the homestead is vast.
Russell didn’t specifically seek out something so large, but it is close to the university and is what the Historical Society had available. The place had been abandoned for eighteen years and maybe its hollowness, its emptiness, matched Russell’s current state of mind – or maybe something called to him.
Regardless, Russell is lost, and the house represents that loss by being oversized, a bit convoluted, and a harbinger of terrible secrets.
Even though Russell doesn’t harbor any secrets of his own, he needs to discover something new. Something to keep his mind ablaze as he comes to terms that his life will never be the same.
Depth of the Tale
When one engages in haunted house horror as of late, there exists a cinematographic trend that must stop: The house in question is too well lit at night. Yes, the images may look good on screen, but there is too much light and not enough shadow, diluting suspense at every step.
In The Changeling, director of cinematography, John Coquillon makes certain that the audience’s visual experience is a visceral one. Like John Russell, we engage in a story with a strong creep factor due to an atmosphere that sometimes resembles the contrasts of light and dark one would expect from a noir thriller.
This not only contributes to the element of terror at night, but the colors are a bit muted in the daytime to keep the elements of fear and tension brewing like a grave sickness.
Once Russell gets settled into his new abode, the uncanny comes into play. Here, Medak uses an excellent balance of light, sound, music, and visual effects to bring the horror to life – as well as perfectly placed flashbacks that never detract from the story.
The key element to all that Russell endures is water-based. His wife and daughter were killed by a truck on a snow-covered road and buried under the snow. The ghost boy, Joseph Carmichael (Voldi Way) who haunts him was buried in water as well.
The ghost uses the water as a conduit to make his presence known, at times, though he doesn’t need to do so. This is one strong spirit with a legitimate grudge that has been looking for someone like John Russell for seventy years.
Sympathy for the Devil?
Joseph Carmichael is one angry spirit. After his untimely death in 1909, he has been replaced by a “changeling,” which means his surviving parents brought in a new boy to play the role of son – a time when this could be accomplished with relative ease as opposed to the fingerprinting, Social Security, and other personal identification measures of today.
Since Russell comes in full of negative energy, somber in this case, Carmichael’s ghost is not only drawn to the man, but manipulates him to expose the changeling who had stolen his life.
It’s hard to feel bad for a little boy, but Russell works like mad to uncover the truth – without reward.
Well, that’s not true. Russell discovers that he can give and make sacrifices when all he wants to do is grieve. He’s certainly not self-centered and he’s not in search of a “pity party.” But working so hard to uncover a seventy-year-old mystery and right a wrong rejuvenates him, and helps launch him into his new life without his family.
The Séance Scene
All too often, horror movies indulge in séances to open a door and let something in that the characters quickly want out of their lives.
In The Changeling, there is no over-wrought Ouiji board and no holding of hands. But what does occur is unsettling, frightening, and captivating.
Medak has created the most chilling séance scene in filmmaking history. Again, the lighting is solid, which creates a claustraphobic and heavy atmosphere. The acting is spot on, and the tension is on a whole other level.
All too often, when characters face the uncanny, they engage in denial. “No, that can’t be happening” – and it takes them forever to finally acknowledge that something awry is at play.
Not John Russell.
Russell is a man of science, so to speak. After all, music is mathematical and follows logic (unless you’re Blixa Bargeld). But he gets to work early on with the strange goings on in his life. This makes for a faster paced narrative where we see the protagonist engage in the other worldly to find some solid answers.
The End Result
A psychic during the séance may have asked the spirit, “Why do you remain?” but that question can be asked of why this movie has endured.
That’s because all of the aforementioned elements combine to create one hell of a gripping story about loss, vengeance, and “making things right,” without clubbing the audience over the head.
And the journey isn’t just something worthwhile because Medak and company have created a compelling, haunting story in The Changeling that has held up for forty years.
I have watched the film countless times, and certain scenes not only stick in my mind, they scare the hell out of me.
The cinematography, lighting, music, acting, and editing coalesce in an arena of fear that most horror films can only hope to attain.
On that note, The Changeling is not just one of the greatest haunted house films, it’s one of the greatest horror films of all-time.
William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at Crash Palace Productions. One of this year’s screenplay judges for Shriekfest, he’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film, about to pitch a new horror cable series to Hollywood, and his award-winning novel, Bloodletting, will be re-printed by PageCurl Publishing later this fall. When Prystauk’s not headbanging to punk and metal, and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at: LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.
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“The missing link between “Cruising” and Bad Lieutenant” -Amazon Review.
It definitely scared me and I would leave the house. Unless I was afraid to loose everything. There is always revenge. A sick kid thats stuck in this house. It seems impossible to leave. There is fear to leave the child alone and the child can’t leave. Someone has to take the mothers place after she is gone.That is so sad she can’t be there.The mother looks like a POS for leaving. The child seems sad as well.
June 16, 2019 at 8:08 pm
This character just wants to know they’re not crazy. With everything that’s going on inside the house it’s hard to tell.
June 17, 2019 at 4:01 pm