The Changeling (1980)

The Changeling first published by

The Changeling is a ghost story, and with its cast of middle-aged characters, a rather classical one at that – but as its very title implies, it is also concerned with substitutions. For a start there is its director, Peter Medak (The Ruling Class; A Day in the Death of Joe Egg), called in to take over at the eleventh hour after first Donald Cammell and then Tony Richardson abandoned the helm over ‘creative differences’. The plot, too, involves the father of one prematurely deceased child transferring his concerns to another prematurely deceased child (and then to yet another, once he has worked his way through the house’s confused layers of mystery), even as an unrestful spirit vindictively pursues the person who has stolen its life. It starts as a very typical haunted house movie, before swapping those tropes for something more akin to a supernatural detective story. And it also keeps changing location, from New York to Seattle, and from one big old dark house to another, smaller site of haunting – while the Seattle mansion in Chessman Park stands in for a supposedly haunted house in Cheesman Park, Denver, Colorado that inspired the film’s story. 

At the beginning, a vacation in snowy Upstate New York ends in disaster, as composer John Russell (George C. Scott), after hearing his beloved wife Joanna (Jean Marsh) declare, “This is the last holiday I’m ever going on with you,” bears witness to her and their young daughter Cathy being ploughed down by a speeding car. We hear these merry holidaymakers’ voices on the soundtrack before we actually see them in their wintry surroundings – and indeed sound, being the natural medium of an expert in music like John, will play an important rôle in the rest of the film. Several months after the deaths of Joanna and Cathy, John moves to Seattle to take up an academic posting and rents a large isolated property from the Historical Preservation Society. John is there looking for solitude, but quickly grasps that he is not alone in the grand old mansion, as he hears strange thuds and vocalisations within, and is soon experiencing a ghostly presence more directly. 

What distinguishes all this from your average film in which things go bump in the night is John’s unusual character, and his correspondingly unusual response to the goings-on in the house. For maybe it is his relatively advanced age, or maybe it is his own recent experiences with death, but John, far from trying to flee the poltergeist in his house, becomes more and more obsessed with getting to the bottom of what is happening. Accordingly John fearlessly explores the nooks and crannies – and also a hidden attic room, complete with a young child’s wheelchair and music box – of his new environs for clues as to the identity of his undead housemate. With help from the Historical Society’s agent Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere), he also researches the property’s potted history. Eventually a seance will give the childish ghost a voice, and the revenant will also visit John in a horrific vision of drowning. In all this John is really just a conduit for uncovering a body that needs to be properly buried and a story that needs to be told. The ghost, though eventually furnished with a harrowing backstory that makes it sympathetic, is also angry and vengeful, even capable of murder – and there is just the slightest hint that it might have caused the deaths of Johns’ wife and daughter (much as it later causes the deaths of others) to lure John into unearthing its own unresolved trauma. This is a ghost that wants to be found, and John is well-placed to find it, mediating and facilitating its strange revenge.

Like The Shining (released a little later in the same year), The Changeling tells of a snowbound tragedy and a bad father – but the latter is offset by John’s good father, who for a brief while is in perfect tune with the house, his own sadness synching with the resident grief. The film’s central location is a Victorian home with creaking doors, noisy pipes, cobwebbed recesses and a long history – but other, newer structures, like the offices of the Historical Society, the modernist headquarters of local Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), and the residential home built recently over a much older well, all echo with the past, unable to cover up completely its concealed secrets. What ensues is an odd kind of political conspiracy, in which an event that took place before the Great War has changed the course of history, leaving its victim still wanting to reclaim a legacy long lost. It is a peculiar piece of gothic – creepy and atmospheric, yet constantly switching its narrative this way and that, as a persistent past keeps resurfacing in a present that struggles to deny it.

Summary: Peter Medak’s modern yet old-fashioned gothic places a decent, damaged man between dynastic conspiracy and supernatural vendetta.

© Anton Bitel