Haunted house stories have long been a focus of horror films, with Peter Medak‘s The Changeling being one of many. Yet, like so many, its eerie bumps in the night and chilling touches ensure that it never feels anything less than fresh. Starring George C. Scott, it tells the story of John Russell, a man who loses his wife and daughter in a tragic accident and moves to Seattle. There, he rents a century-old home and begins to discover odd things about the massive house. Warnings from the local historical foundation that the home “does not want to be lived in” only drive John to further explore the trauma that occurred there, drawn to the cobweb-covered secrets that Cheesman Park is hiding.
Based upon co-writer Russell Hunter‘s own claimed experienced in the Henry Treat Rogers mansion, The Changeling is one of my favorite haunted house chillers. Medak’s ability to create fear is second-to-none, throwing every trick in the book at the film in order to create the perfect atmosphere. The tragic, moving introduction of John Russell and his family gives way to the dark secrets of the home, in equal measures traumatic and mysterious. From the loud banging in the morning to the slamming of doors and the discovery of a secret room, Cheesman Park is a playground of ghoulish frights. The exploration of that secret room is one of the best in the film, coupled with a jarring flashback that John has when he discovers what was going on there to cause such hauntings. It is a meticulously designed room, filled with cobwebs and dust while still possessing a small wheelchair, a notebook, and music box, all of which possess sinister potential.
Medak and composer Rick Wilkins dial up a consistently menacing score, striking eerie notes as John explores the home and as his friend Claire (Trish Van Devere) stops by for her own ominous trek up to the attic. The work of DP John Coquillon is essential in creating the atmosphere as well, using frequent point-of-view shots from the perspective of the ghost to create haunting moments. Shots of the ghost walking up to John and a group of people performing a seance, or the terrifying steadicam-esque point-of-view shot from the wheelchair as it chases Claire around the home are edge-of-your-seat terror-inducing. The bits of dread that are created by these point-of-view shots are notably effective, and they’re paid off by the film’s classic haunted house tricks such as doors slamming and mysterious fires starting. Intense medium shots and cuts to the scribbling of a medium as the ghost speaks to her are spell-binding. Combined with the rapid pace of the scene, it is a moment that sends a shiver down one’s spine. It is a technically strong film from top to bottom, possessed with a terrifying story that is consistently elevated by its excellent cinematography, music, and sound.
The performance of George C. Scott is not to be understated either, presenting fantastic physical touches as he probes the mystery of the home. Whether in the look in his eyes as he listens to a tape of the medium’s visit or the vulnerability he shows as he mourns the loss of his family, Scott captures every bit of John’s emotion in his face. The range he demonstrates, as per usual, is exemplary mining every portion of John Russell as a man and character. He is also perfectly suited for a film of this type, possessing a confidence and determination as he and Claire investigate the home. He is not one to frighten easily, yes, which may not tip the audience to be scared – something Roger Ebert critiqued upon release – but he is a sturdy presence, one befitting the film’s rational and emotional sides. This is ultimately a story of a ghost trying to get justice and expose what happened to it, and having a detective-type not easily driven away is a natural fit.
A creepy and thrilling mystery-horror, Peter Medak’s The Changeling is one of my absolute favorite haunted house films. Probing the past, the nature of ghosts, and trauma, the film is as moving and thought-provoking as it is spooky. Possessing masterful production design, a menacing score, and George C. Scott’s terrific performance, The Changeling is absolutely a Halloween season mainstay.