Here’s a movie that basically made up the Haunted House drinking game. Old mansions, secret attics, seances, terrifying dreams, and a creepy child ghost.
George C. Scott wins.
The Changeling – Canada, 1980. Dir. Peter Medak, Screenplay William Gray & Diana Maddox, Story by Russell Hunter. Starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas.
Since I’ve been writing about movies with creepy kids and ghosts who needs help, it seemed like a good idea to go back to 1980’s The Changeling. It’s sort of one the CLASSIC ghost-kid-needs-help movies.
The Changeling opens with George C. Scott on vacation with his wife and daughter. Their car has broken down on a snowy road and they’ve pushed off to the side to call for help. While John, George C. Scott, makes the call, his wife and daughter have a snowball fight. It’s all very fun until two cars come hurtling down the road, one loses control trying to avoid the other and crashes right into John’s family. They’re killed instantly as he watches helpless from the phone booth across the road.
It’s a jarring opening, to say the least. Immediately we’re thrown into this heavy story. A lot of these movies are about people dealing with grief and death of a loved one, a mind set that opens them up to the paranormal perhaps. The Changeling is another one but unlike a lot of the others, we see John before his tragedy. We’re taken along on the emotional journey with him, we see the steps of his grieving. It’s painful.
George C. Scott is wonderful here. But really, when isn’t he wonderful? I love him in this movie though. He plays the grieving father so well, I just want to hug him all of the time.
Unable to stand living in his old apartment alone, John takes up a teaching position at a college across the country, as far from home as he can get. With the help of friends, he finds an old house to rent, a quiet house where he’ll be able to compose his music and come to terms with his loss. Or so he hopes.
Now, when we’re looking at haunted house movies, it seems obvious that the house is going to be one of the central features. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s something like Hill House in The Haunting – an insane, gothic monstrosity. Sometimes the house is an incongruous addition to the story like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House in The House on Haunted Hill. In the modern movies it’s office just a normal suburban home, examples being the homes in films like Poltergeist or Paranormal Activity. To houses of the films often depend on their purpose in their stories. In The Haunting, the house itself is supposed to be the unsettling element and it is. In The House on Haunted Hill, the scares are supposed to be over the top bordering on the absurd. The Ennis House, while architecturally fantastic, fits the campy narrative by being so shockingly out of place. Poltergeist, and to some extent Paranormal Activity, is commenting on family life in suburbia and all of the horrors that entails so the mundane location is fitting.
So what about the house in The Changeling? Well, this house is great. It’s this elegant old mansion that is absolutely enchanting. I fell in love a little bit. It’s all woodwork and glass doors and epic staircases and swinging chandeliers. I know this house was a set but man, it’s the perfect house for a ghost story. And kind of a perfect house. I would totally live there. I’d probably be completely creeped out all of the time, but I would live there.
It’s this antique old place that breathes history and it’s perfect for Scott’s character who is trying to move on but is still stuck in his grief.
The haunting here builds subtly. At first it’s little things, like a piano key playing on its own or a door swinging open when no one is watching. There are mysterious noises and at one point John is awakened early in the morning by loud banging that could just be the water pipes. But probably isn’t.
There’s a mystery attached to the house. Some people don’t want John living there. And the reasons may have something to do with the strange events occurring in his new home.
The Changeling is all atmosphere and terror. While John tries to communicate with the spirit haunting him, the spirit is not always cooperative. Once we find out the truth behind the events, the spirit’s behaviour makes complete sense. It also becomes even more frightening because we realize this ghost is not going to behave in rational ways. It is an angry, angry thing and anyone who crosses it will suffer.
The anger of the ghost is incredibly effective because we know that none of the characters in this film are ever really safe. Even though John is trying to help it, this ghost is so angry it very well could turn on John at any moment.
The Changeling really is great.
And it’s easy to see where it continues to influence horror movies. An easy example is the relationship between Kevin Bacon’s character and the ghost in Stir of Echoes. The ghost has asked for help, if Kevin Bacon fails in providing it there’s no telling what that ghost will do in retaliation. It’s the same as in The Changeling.
When we think of the classic ghost stories in this genre, we think of the old mansions with the dark, hidden rooms. We think of their long hallways, the banging on the walls, the dark and stormy nights. We think of the tortured souls, wronged in life and trapped in death. We think of misery and grief, anger and vengeance.
The Changeling is everything of the classic ghost story in the best way possible. I loved it.