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Whatever Wednesday: ‘The Changeling’

The Changeling is a well-crafted ghost story wrapped around an absorbing mystery. While watching the movie, it’s impossible not to see the countless homages and imitations gleaned from it over the years. Of course, none of this excuses the film’s flaws, but they are so overwhelmed by the rest of the film, they hardly matter.

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Poster for The Changeling

A Canadian gothic story, The Changeling, directed by British-Hungarian Peter Medak, is a movie filled with a sense of eeriness and melodrama. Medak never misses a moment to frame the old house in an unsettling way that makes the house haunt our minds even when the movie is taking place elsewhere.

Based on a story by Russell Hunter and adapted by Wiliam Gray and Dianna Maddox, the story is of a haunted man in a haunted house. A composer, John Russell (George C. Scott), decides to move after witnessing his wife and daughter killed by a runaway truck. The traumatizing incident is the opening of The Changeling and demonstrates Medak’s talent for showing idyllic moments shrouded in dread.

Haunted by the memories of his wife and child, John moves to Seattle to teach. He stops by a friend’s house and is offered a place to stay. Jon refuses, and the wife helpfully suggests, “I have a friend who works at the Historical Preservation Society. They have some old houses that I’m sure they rent.”

I’m not sure it’s the business of historical societies to rent out properties to people looking to recuperate from traumatic events. But capitalism is a hell beast that forever needs feeding, and as set-ups go, it’s more believable than most. Besides, once John gets moved in, he begins to realize that he might not be all alone in the great big house.

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The mansion exterior from The Changeling

The house itself is practically another character in the story. However, equally fascinating is the behind-the-scenes trivia of its existence. The house is a combination of a constructed exterior added on to an already existing modern home and a three-story interconnected soundstage. The result is something borne from classic movie magic as it feels more like a real house than most movies filmed on location.

Scott is a legendary actor, perhaps more famous for his least impressive role, that of General George Patton. Here, his infamous blustery demeanor is softened as he plays a man trying to escape the horrors of his recent past and lose himself in his work. But, of course, both the house and the real estate agent Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) have other ideas.

Van Devere and Scott have great chemistry, unsurprising as they were married at the time. While John may be reluctant to start a new relationship, Claire seems patient but intrigued. The two soon become embroiled in the mystery of who might be haunting John’s house and how Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) might be involved.

Gray and Maddox’s script is good but eventually forgets all about John’s recent trauma as he becomes more and more absorbed with trying to solve the house’s mystery. I recognize this as a problem, but seeing that every time I watch The Changeling, I too eventually forget all about John’s wife and daughter for swaths of the film, I count that in the film’s favor. However, Medak and the other filmmakers do a good job drawing us in, setting up the mystery, and giving us clues that it almost doesn’t matter that it forgets itself at times.

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George C. Scott as John Russell

Gray and Maddox’s script succeeds in other places. For starters, The Changeling is one of the rare movies where the main character’s job impacts the atmosphere and the movie itself. John’s a composer and teaches music at the local University — the film’s score is one of the highlights of the film. 

John eventually discovers a music box in the attic that plays a song that sounds suspiciously like the song he’s currently writing. Usually, films with a protagonist who studies music would not have the foresight to make a musical piece a crucial point of the story or even the mood. However, Rick Wilkins’s score is haunting and eerie, as it never spells out the mood so much as adds layers to it. Though the song played on the music box is by Howard Blake, Wilkins’s score provides much of the foundation for the spectral feeling throughout most of The Changeling

John Coquillon’s uncanny camera work then takes what Wilkins has done and enhances the feeling of unease. Coquillion’s camera switches between the objective eye of God and the subjective eye of the thing living in the house. Half the fun of the movie is figuring out which point of view we see events unfold. The result is a sort of off-kilter feeling; we’re never too sure of if we see the ghost do something or if we are peering from the ghost’s vantage point.

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George C. Scott

If that wasn’t enough, on top of Wilkins layered score and Coquillon’s preternatural camera, there is Lilla Pederson’s editing. The cuts in The Changeling are always at the right time but never when you expect them. However, they are never jarring, and it never pulls you out of the movie, but it is always lively and keeps your eyes raptly glued to the screen.

Behind it, all is Medak orchestrating everything like a maestro. One scene, for example, involving an old croquet ball that belonged to John’s daughter, is a masterclass of filmmaking. The ball has mysteriously rolled down the stairs into the foyer in a way that you have probably seen imitated and parodied a hundred times.

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Scott’s John and the spirit have a disagreement

John takes the ball, drives to a river, and throws it into the water. Upon arriving home, the ball, dripping wet, bounces down the stairs. John backs away, horrified. The scene cuts to an exterior scene at the University where we hear John and another voice talking about the incidents at the house. We then cut to the two men walking down a hallway and stopping in the doorway with the words “Psychic Research” perfectly framed above them.

None of this works without Scott’s expressive face, which fills up the screen. A towering talent, Scott does a terrific job playing a grieving man who slowly gives into obsession. One acting choice in particular tickles me every time I watch the movie. After finding a body in a well and calling the police, he is asked if he knows who it is. “No, not really.” The detective looks stunned. “What does that mean?” Scott then smirks at the man and draws out a cigarette. “No.”

We know he knows, but why isn’t he telling the police? The answer is obvious, and he even explains himself just a scene later. One of the talents of The Changeling is how it answers your questions almost immediately after you ask them.

Medak wisely uses exterior shots to help with the mood. You can see the actor’s reddened cheeks from the crisp autumn air, the muddy ground, and damp leaves, adding the oppressive feeling of each scene. Beyond that, Medak has Coquillon capture the Seattle cityscape, such as the Rainier building where Carmichael’s office sits. The building is so odd-looking and strangely sinister that it is almost a prop all by itself.

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The Rainier Tower as framed in The Changeling

But inside the house, a set if you recall, is where Medak truly sets the tenor. Especially during the seance scene, which has to rank as one of the best in horror films. Medak works with Coquillon, Wilkins, and Pedersen to make something we’ve seen done a thousand cheezy ways, a seance, and does it in a way that is both effectively chilling and believable. 

The Changeling is one of those ghost stories where characters start believing in ghosts relatively early and don’t waste their time with a bunch of cynical nonsense. Instead, John accepts that the spirit needs his help, puts together why it seems to connect with him more than others, and then solves the mystery.

Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Medak understands that the engine of a ghost story is the drama that runs underneath it. Things that go bump in the night are only part of the formula. The crucial element is the tragedy of loss and how the cruelty of an uncaring universe can sometimes seem personal.

A lesser film wouldn’t have had Joseph Carmaichel be so conflicted as Medak does in The Changeling. Douglas’s performance in one crucial scene is heartbreaking as it is unnerving. After all, despite how he has behaved during the film, he doesn’t deserve his fate. Yet, weirdly we understand why it must happen.

Women in horror films usually play either the final girl or damsels in distress. Thankfully, The Cahnegling only has one scene where Van Devere’s Claire needs help. She spends much of the movie as John’s emotional rock, the one person he can talk to about the house.

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Left to Right: Scott and Trish Van Devere as Claire

Claire finds him attractive from the first time they meet. But it’s not until later in the movie that John sees her at all. Van Devere walks a fine line between hysterics and supportive, but it never comes off as unnatural. She’s game for anything and often goes along with John no matter how wild the idea, even if it’s knocking on some strange woman’s door and asking to dig up a well underneath her house.

The Changeling is such a technically brilliant movie that it overcomes any flaws in the script it might have. But I’d argue that for a film to be this effective, the script’s flaws aren’t as significant as we perceived. It can do this because it is so well made and because it’s just so much fun. The movie draws you in almost immediately and never lets you go. 

Like all ghost stories, The Changeling understands the only thing scarier than the unknown is the known.

Images courtesy of Pan-Candian Film Distributors

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Author

  • Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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