For all the monsters and murderers that populate horror films, nothing is quite as scary as a good haunted house movie. The best ghost stories usually double as mysteries, with the victimized person having to research and solve the problem of the spirits’ unrest. Of all of the ghostly haunt films, few come even close to being as scary as the 1980 Canadian spook-fest The Changeling.
The Changeling stars George C. Scott (Patton, Malice) as composer John Russell who, after witnessing the brutal deaths of his wife and daughter in a horrible automobile accident, moves from New York to Seattle to teach music at a local college and get away from his grief. In Seattle, he rents a big, old spooky mansion from the Seattle Historical Society and moves in. He finds the place inspiring, and immediately sits down at a piano that was left in the house and starts to write music. His peace is short-lived, however, as ghostly goings-on soon begin to transpire; he is awakened by banging pipes, the piano will play by itself and doors will swing open and shut on their own.
While exploring the house, John finds a locked door to an attic that he breaks into, revealing a room with a child’s wheelchair and a music box that plays the exact song that he had written on the piano. He gets in touch with a woman from the historical society named Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere from “One Life to Live”) who puts him in touch with a medium who performs a séance, with predictably skeptical results. Only when listening back to the tapes does John hear another voice answering the medium’s questions, the voice of a young boy who is trying to communicate with him. After a little research and further communication with the ghost, John learns that the ghost is a crippled boy named Joseph Carmichael who lived in the house and was hidden away in the attic while his parents adopted another boy who they passed off in public as Joseph. John and Claire set out to unravel the strange story of the crippled boy and his changeling, hoping to help Joseph find eternal peace.
The Changeling was inspired by real events experienced by playwright Russell Hunter, who experienced supernatural occurrences while renting a house in Denver, Colorado. Hunter wrote his story, and it was adapted for the screen by William Gray (Prom Night, Humongous) and Diana Maddox (The Peace Killers). The plot is not as farfetched as one would assume a ghost story would be; on the contrary, the back story behind the specter, as sad and infuriating as it is, seems like something that really could have happened. The creepy story is directed for film by anthology horror television staple Peter Medak (who contributed to The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt and Masters of Horror), who brings his suspenseful touch to the already tense script. Throw in George C. Scott’s tour-de-force performance, and The Changeling becomes one of the scariest movies ever made.
One huge reason why The Changeling is such a horrifying movie is the experienced direction of Medak. Medak uses every aspect of the script to his advantage, from the banging pipes to the disembodied voices, to create tension and keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. In one scene, a child’s rubber ball bounces down the staircase. John picks the ball up, takes it outside and drops it in a lake, only to have the ball bounce down the stairs inside again. The bouncing sounds coupled with the slow reveal of the ball is maddening, forcing the viewer to anticipate what they know is coming, but still not letting them look away. In another scene, Claire is chased by the phantom child’s wheelchair until she trips and falls down the stairs, the wheelchair toppling over next to her. It’s actually a lot scarier than it sounds, with the chair almost on top of Claire as she struggles to stay a step ahead of the inanimate object. The Changeling does not rely on special effects or cheap shocks for its horror; it doesn’t have to. The story and mood provide all the chills it needs. Medak takes the well-written script and turns out some of the most frightening moments ever seen onscreen.
Another factor, apart from Medak’s direction, that makes The Changeling so terrifying is the work of cinematographer John Coquillon. As the director of photography on such tense classics as The Osterman Weekend and the original Sam Peckinpah version of Straw Dogs, Coquillon is an expert at building and crafting suspense, and The Changeling is one of his finest hours. Medak and Coquillon use the house as another character in the film, and the secrets that it hides jump out at the viewer when they are revealed. The dark and eerie setting is the perfect haunting grounds for Joseph, the playful yet petrifying poltergeist.
In a movie about a composer, music is obviously going to be a key component. In addition to classical pieces by Brahms and Mozart, The Changeling features an outstanding score by TV movie veteran Rick Wilkins (The Suicide Murders). Wilkins’ soundtrack is exactly like the visuals of the movie, subtle and gentle one moment, turning into a punch in the face in the next. Add in the haunting music box theme by Howard Blake (Flash Gordon), and The Changeling has an unforgettable score.
As an archetype, ghost stories are some of the freakiest stories ever shown on the silver screen. The Changeling provides all the necessary elements needed to scare, and does it in with classic horror movie style.