5 out of 5
Directed by: Peter Medak
In his 2.5 star review for The Changeling, Rober Ebert criticizes the logical way George C. Scott’s John Russell approaches the haunting of the home into which he’s moved, suggesting that this clinicality removes the sense of ominousness required to make a spooky house spooky. Given my ranking, it’s probably clear that I disagree; indeed I found this to be one of several tweaks director Peter Medak and screenwriters William Gray and Diana Maddox made to the standard formula that not only made their film stand far above their genre peers, but also into a wholly accomplished, effective movie – spookiness aside. This “logical” approach actually carries through the whole movie, linking scene to scene, and structurally delivers something that’s appreciably lacking the type of expository hand-holding and mood-telegraphing that many movies unnecessarily add. Instead of making the movie off-putting in any way, it allowed me to be immersed: John Russell understands his home has a ghost, and that that ghost is trying to tell him something, and we understand it as well.
This approach starts right from the beginning, as Russell, his wife, and daughter are pushing their car up a hill, having faced a breakdown while traveling to some vacation destination. Russell steps across the road to call for a tow; wife and daughter are playing together, curbside; Russell looks up, horror dawning, as he realizes that the truck and car approaching from opposite directions are skidding out on ice, and that the truck is now headed for his family…
There’s no long setup to this; there’s no followup funeral scene; there’s no montage to show us Russell trying to get back to work several months later, teaching his craft – piano – at a college. All of the information is delivered organically, intelligently, and patiently by Medak, absolutely supported by Scott’s reserved but warm performance. And when Russell settles into a new home, the haunting elements are doled out slowly and without the normally requisite music stings or visual trickery: the banging of pipes, the dripping of water, it’s all normal enough but it’s also odd, and it’s allowed to build up, encouraging Russell to start asking questions about the home’s past, leading to his discovery of a walled off room in the attic in which a tragedy may have taken place…
At every point when a usual flick of this type would waste time on incredulousness, The Changeling moves forward; at the same time, Russell isn’t just diving off the deep end – Scott shows the character’s struggle to reconcile what he’s seeing / hearing with his current reality, dashing off the unavoidable association of his own child’s death to the voice of a child he begins to hear in the house. While the movie continues to sprinkle some scares and great imagery in, it keeps the tension up through more practical means of trying to resolve the mystery of what, exactly, happened.
There are points where I suspected the movie may have jumped its logical shark, but it always proved me wrong – justifying the scene with some accompanying visuals, or the following scene, leading to one of the most affecting and visually arresting final sequences of the haunted house genre.
I think I watched this a while ago, when I was in the midst of an obsession with gorier and edgier horror, and couldn’t get into it. Thank goodness my tastes have expanded since then, and that, y’know, we have the option via streaming services to easily give things another go. The Changeling is a brilliant bit of horror – subtle, yes, but masterful in its mood-setting, and respectful of its audience’s time and intelligence in a way that movies rarely are.