Directed by Hungarian-born filmmaker Peter Medak, The Changeling is an effective, mysterious and chilling ghost story. It features characters that elude horror movie snares and it isn’t explicit, choosing a subtler and perhaps meeker road to the scares. That’s not to say that this flick isn’t creepy, mind you, but there’s certain craftsmanship to the fear.
The Changeling is a haunted house movie at its core, so it’s venturing through some familiar territory. But this 1980 picture takes a different path, lingering to play voices over and over again and pausing to let Medak use numerous wide-shots to wrap the viewer in the majesty of the house of horrors. It also plays to an older crowd, which may account for its mellowness and patience.
George C. Scott stars as Dr. John Russell, a composer. When we meet him, he is watching his wife and daughter get killed in a traffic accident. The horror causes him to move from New York to Washington, where he rents a large home in Seattle and tries to get his life back in order. Unfortunately, the home he is renting has a history that he will soon become all too acquainted with.
Russell befriends Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) and starts to experience strange events in the home, including a pounding sound that starts up at the same time each day. Exploring the house, the composer begins to unravel the mystery and finds himself joined by the ghost of a murdered child. The ghost wants the world to know the truth about his passing, which causes Russell take the fight to a prominent United States senator (Melvyn Douglas).
Scott plays Dr. Russell with restraint, leaving tantrums to others. This results in a soft melancholy that floats over the picture, as the composer is never really all that frightened and receives the ghost with inconspicuous curiosity. His fortitude is offset by a moment early in the picture when his character weeps in bed; it gives the impression that he prefers to keep his emotions (and fears) in check
For most modern horror fans, The Changeling’s less-is-more method may not be the ticket. That’s okay. There are plenty of franchises that have built on restraint only to swerve in another direction to pull more crowds. Medak’s picture is a gently burning candle, one that lets out its apparition wisely and precisely with import and drama.
It is interesting to note that some of the criticism of The Changeling lands on its rationality as a ghost story. That may be true to some extent, as Medak’s picture (and Scott’s delivery) is almost overbearing in its outright competence. But with so much chaos and impatience haunting the genre, it is nice to see something with attention to character and plot specifics.
The use of motifs and the classical soundtrack adds to the touch, giving off a minimalist chill that remains until the top blows off. It could be argued that the final sequences are a touch on the clichéd side, but there is something outstanding about Russell’s reconciled visit to the senator: his impassiveness and fearlessness are a result of having lost everything.
As Halloween chills go, The Changeling is effective. It is a thorough, vigilant horror film that weaves one hell of a ghost story. Scott’s relatively low-key performance and the movie’s unassertive pace may scare off some fans of faster-paced fare, but there are big rewards for those who still like their frights delivered with care and detail.