As we slide into the Halloween and obligatory Pittsburgh Romero seasons, I thought I’d take the next few weeks to spotlight some lovely horror films to warm you on those increasingly-longer nights. To start, I can think of no better title than the 1980 haunted house chiller, The Changeling.
Recovering from the deaths of his wife and daughter, New York composer John Russell (George C. Scott) moves to Seattle and rents an old, sprawling Victorian mansion from Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere), an agent for the local historical society. Almost immediately, John begins to experience oddness that can’t be explained away by timber settling: a loud echoing banging resonating through the house every night at the same time; water taps turning on by themselves; the ghostly image of a drowned little boy appearing at the bottom of a tub. John chalks some of this up to grief, particularly when his daughter’s distinctive rubber ball comes rolling down the stairs. Agonized, drives out to the river and hurls the ball over a bridge. Returning home, he finds the ball, still dripping with river water, sitting on the floor of the foyer.
Exploring further, John uncovers a secret entrance hidden behind a bookcase. The upstairs attic bedroom hasn’t seen sunlight in decades. A child’s wheelchair lay abandoned in the corner. Turning to go, John knocks over a music box, hearing a tune he himself had been playing with earlier—a melody he swears he’d never heard before.
At first believing the home to be haunted by a girl who’d died in an accident at the turn of the century, John and Claire hold a séance. In one of the film’s most intense sequences, we learn the identity of the ghostly child, we learn who murdered him, and we know who benefited from the death—told in anxiety-fueled editing of sound and flashback, centered on the medium and her automatic writing. It’s a chilling scene and one that stays with you.
Directed by Peter Medak (The Ruling Class), The Changeling starts with a shock, then lets the dread build as John attempts to put his life together. The Changeling was written by Russell Hunter, William Gray, Diana Maddox, based on experiences Hunter himself claimed to have had while living in the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in the Cheesman Park neighborhood of Denver, Colorado during the 1960s. According to Hunter, the banging, the hidden room, and the séance all took place during his residency, but I’m not about to start a fight amongst the believers and the wet blankets.
In 1971, George C. Scott refused his Academy Award for Best Actor for Patton. He’d refused the nomination for The Hustler in 1962 (though accepted it without fuss for Anatomy of a Murder). He disliked the popularity contest and hoped his refusal would make the Academy “do something constructive.” While he’d proven a wide range as an actor, his bombastic portrayal of the famous general and injured-soldier-slapper followed him around in the public eye. If that remains your strongest impression of the man, than you’ll be a little shocked at his vulnerability here. Scott shines best during his scenes of grief, allowing us to see this man, John, whose family was taken from him while he was helpless to stop it. He bears no ill-will towards the “changeling” of the title; he only wants the spirit to lay to rest. So that, perhaps, John can too.
The Changeling was recently released on Blu-Ray by Severin Films and is readily available for streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s a perfect way to ease into the Halloween season. Pumpkin Spice and Pumpkin Spice Jokes not included.