Because haunted house movies have been a staple of cinema for nearly a century, it’s hard for filmmakers to find fresh ways to grip audiences with that mixture of cobwebs, dark hallways, creaking doors, and restless spirits that makes for an enjoyably horrifying night at the movies. In 1980, a Canadian film nevertheless managed to summon up some of that old black magic in a scary, effective thriller: The Changeling.
The story opens with composer John Russell (George C. Scott) undergoing an unspeakable family tragedy. Disoriented and wracked with grief, he retreats to an old mansion which is rented to him by a representative of the local historical society (Trish Van Devere). But before you can say “poltergeist” strange phenomenon evince themselves in the old dark house, unnerving Russell but also driving him to investigate a mystery every bit as unsettling as his own personal tragedy. What happened in this foreboding pile, and how does it connect to a wealthy and powerful politician (Melvyn Douglas)?
Director Peter Medak (who also helmed another of my recommendations, The Ruling Class) knows how to frighten an audience with style, pacing, and mood rather than cheap jump scares. He and cinematographer John Coquillon also effectively use a nice mix of extended trolley shots, deep focus, changes in camera perspective, and other techniques to keep the audience agreeably wound up and off-balance.
George C. Scott strikes the right emotional notes in the lead, as someone bewildered by loss and in need of a new purpose. He and Van Devere, who were married in real life, do a particularly fine job of portraying halting middle aged attraction. The audience senses they are both interested in each other but for their own reasons are unable to act on their feelings, and so they sublimate them into a shared quest into the supernatural. Melvyn Douglas, continuing the late life acting success he enjoyed (see for example my recommendation of I Never Sang For My Father) also registers in a role of a sort of villain who is also sort of sympathetic.
,There are moments when Russell Hunter’s story, as scripted by William Grey and Diana Maddox is a bit confusing, but it’s fundamentally clever, creepy, and engaging. The result is a very worthy entry in the haunted house genre that scooped many awards in its native country, including for production designer Trevor Williams, who gives us a haunted house set, to, uh, die for.