Let’s Scare Jenn to Death: The Changeling (1980)
By Guest Writer James Olchak
Welcome, mortals. Let us again gather round and witness a woman in the prime of youth slowly but inexorably dragged into a premature grave…from watching spooky movies! Our affable but doomed victim, Jenn, has been subjected to witches, cannibals, and unholy tentacle beasts. If those haven’t worked, what could possibly cause her veneer of sanity to crack? What could cause the icy fingers of death to clutch at her heart where those have failed? How about a nice quiet…ghost story.
OVERVIEW: The Changeling (1980)
This month’s film, 1980’s The Changeling is, at its core, just that. A ghost story, one so traditional it could easily have been framed by a camp counselor telling it to a bunch of teenagers gathered around a campfire. It has all the clichés you’d expect: a creaky old house with a history of tragedy, mysterious noises in the middle of the night, objects moving by themselves, even seances and secret rooms, like all of my favorite 40’s chillers. It has a couple unusual choices for the genre, but its strongest elements would likely be the weakest elements of an ineptly made film covering the same ground. Fortunately, The Changeling is as streamlined and well-engineered as a car that car experts would cite as a perfect example of a streamlined, well-engineered car (I know nothing about cars).
The Changeling’s protagonist is John Russell, a wealthy, famous composer who moves from his tony New York lifestyle to a sleepy Washington suburb, after the sudden deaths of his wife and child during the opening credits. John is played by Oscar-declining perennial grouch George C. Scott, and his casting is the most radical choice the filmmakers made in The Changeling. No young couple, no too-sensitive child, no magical ethnic person to explain everything, not even a steadfast denier to decry the existence of the supernatural. Just George C. Scott, grumpy, rational man, beset (but not overcome!) by grief, living in a sprawling old house (a mansion, really), that quickly reveals itself to be haunted. His genuine movie-star presence makes everything around him work better, and he carries such gravitas that you understand why people just kinda…believe him, when he starts relating the mysterious events around him. And really, all of the performances in the film are on the better side of good. I’ve largely been trying to choose horror films with like, actualized women characters, as protagonists, antagonists, whatever (Suspiria and Texas Chain Saw Massacre both pass the Bechdel test, if only barely in Chain Saw’s case), but there’s no way around it–there aren’t any particularly significant female characters in The Changeling. Trish Van Devere is great, and does her part to establish exposition and give a sympathetic ear to John’s ghost-related ramblings, but she’s a pretty rote love interest character (although her only being 14 years younger than her co-star is shocking by modern movie standards). However, virtually all the minor supporting roles in the film are women, from Ruth Springford as busybody Minnie Huxley, Helen Burns as autowriting medium Leah Harmon (a chilling performance that lasts a scant few minutes) and Frances Hyland as “freaked out mom who lets a stranger cut a hole in her daughter’s floor to dig up a 72-year-old skeleton.”
Anyway, John’s curiosity and determination endear him to the local realtor/historical agent (the aforementioned Claire, played by Scott’s actual wife,Trish Van Devere), and the two of them strike up a genial-if-not-scorching middle-aged romance. She uses her connections at the town historical society to aid John in seeking out whatever information he can find about his house, and the people who’ve lived there. Soon, their investigation paints a tragic picture of a young boy murdered for an inheritance (another boilerplate element for a ghost story), but the crime committed is so visceral and cruel and its ramifications so wide-ranging that it never dips into melodrama, and you can’t help but want justice for the ghostly presence no matter how much it lashes out at John in anger.
There are very few abrupt shocks in The Changeling (some critics might fairly call it slow), but I would call the pacing deliberate, even rhythmic; the movie’s reveals are controlled, but inexorable, like a metronome or a dripping faucet. The Changeling doesn’t shock you from your seat, but it makes sure you aren’t too comfortable while you’re in it.
As always, Jenn, it is time to find out how close The Changeling brought you to death. I understand you find ghosts and devil stuff particularly spooky. This film is about as straightforward a ghost story as you can get—did you find it scary, or were the conventional beats and clear, linear storytelling too predictable for you? How about the pacing? Does it feel like the reveals are too far apart, or that the film is padded?
I did find it a bit scary. I would say that the conventionality of it as you say did keep it from being SUPER scary. But it was maybe the scariest one for me to date. I think the reveals were well-paced, actually. I don’t think I have complaints about the pacing or structure of this movie. Well then! Might I like a ghost movie?
I talked about the general strength of the performances in The Changeling, but to me the only unique thing about the film (other than its quality compared to similarly tropey ghost/seance/mystery/murder movies) is the choice of a far-side-of-middle-age widower in the protagonist’s role. George C. Scott plays John Russell with a doggedness that subverts many of the tropes a ghost story capitalizes on. He never seems terrified, for example, mainly bemused by the haunting (the only real emotion he shows is after a nightmare about the accident that killed his wife and daughter). But he isn’t in denial about it either, he’s way quicker on the uptake than most characters in these kinds of stories. It only takes a few demonstrations of supernatural phenomena for him to come around to the realization that he’s being contacted from beyond the veil, and to take action to figure out why. What do you think of John, the character? Why do you think he didn’t just pack up and leave after the first time the taps all turned themselves on, or the ball came bouncing down the stairs? Roger Ebert said that following a character like John Russell through a haunted house gives the audience “too much confidence;” does John’s implacability in the face of the metaphysical make the events less scary? Why does John put his life on hold to try and solve the mystery of the presence in the house? What are the stakes, for him?
I actually think his reactions do make it a tiny bit less scary, yes, but I like that about it. He’s just kind of like “Welp, I guess I live in a haunted house now. Let’s see what we can do about this.” Because I’m me I was more troubled by the fact that he seemed to have been married to a woman 20 years younger than him at the opening than by anything else about his age.
I am a paradox because I truly do not believe in ghosts at all, and yet haunting movies terrify me generally. If I were in that scene where the ball came bouncing down the stairs I would have just left the house and never looked back, abandoned my belongings, piano, job, whatever. Bye, Felicia.
As for his motivations, maybe he needed something to focus on other than being miserable that his family was dead. I think people grieving sometimes need a purpose or a project to focus on. I actually think it’s a really well written story in this regard.
As far as ghostly phenomena in movies go, The Changeling rates about a 2 out of 10 for spectacle, especially compared to the bombast of something like Poltergeist or The Shining. Prior to the story’s mildly explosive conclusion, there’s no blood dripping from the walls, no translucent ghouls leaping from closets, no inexplicably sinister portents, only some objects being moved about (mostly harmlessly, and mostly out-of-sight), some banging, and a plaintive voice on a tape recording. Is the restraint shown by director Peter Mendak effective in creating tension, or does it seem needlessly coy (or worse, merely low-budget)?
I think it’s pretty effective. Actually when it gets too out of control like in the other movies you’ve mentioned I just find it less believable. It doesn’t mean those movies aren’t scary – The Shining scares the bejesus out of me – but I think at least a slow build is necessary. You can’t start off with blood dripping out of the walls, etc. It needs to at least start small. I think this movie did a good job with that. I don’t find it to seem low-budget.
Let’s talk about the ghostly presence in the “Chessman House.” John comes to the conclusion pretty much immediately that it wants to communicate (in contrast to Millie’s insistence that the house “doesn’t want people”), and this being a ghost story where you find out what the ghost’s problem is (rather than something like the Amityville Horror, where the forces behind the haunting are just malevolent and abusive for no apparent reason), the audience kinda has to give a crap about the ghost’s story, and how it unfolds in the telling. Is The Changeling successful in that? Is the story told by Joseph (the spirit’s name, as we learn) worth all the fuss?
Yes, I think so. I like that idea that the ghost has a problem and if you resolve the problem for it, it goes away. The idea that it’s just a harmful thing that wants to torture people is no good and also makes it less believable for me. I also want to fix things just generally, so if the idea was just “welp this ghost just wants to be mean and there’s nothing you can do” would frustrate me.
The story is definitely atrocious and worth the fuss. Poor Joseph!
Let’s talk about seances. I love seance scenes in movies, and I see cultural import in the fact that in the films of 30’s and 40’s, seances were invariably portrayed as hogwash, mediums inevitably unmasked as con artists. But beginning in the 50’s (and pretty much right up until the present), there was a sea change, and seance scenes are always portrayed on film as legit psychic phenomena. There’s a whole suite of modern-day hucksters making millions using a method of fleecing the gullible that was commonly known to be horseshit 80 years ago. But I still love a seance scene in a movie, and the one in The Changeling is far and away the best, from Helen Burns’ impassive automatic writing medium, to John’s discovery of Joseph’s voice on the recording he made (the shot of him dropping his lit cigarette in shock is a perfect encapsulation of how bottled up John Russell’s emotions are), to John realizing that he himself did some automatic writing himself while postcognitively viewing Joseph’s murder, I just feel like it’s one of the best reveals in horror. So, uh, do you agree with my gushing enthusiasm?
I do think it’s good. I of course think seances are hogwash as well but I agree that this is an effective scene and the follow up to John hearing the voice is as well. Again, I think keeping it from being ridiculous and over the top makes it easier to accept. If a ghost floated into the room I would have rolled me eyes and checked out.
The Changeling is unusual in that the closest thing to an antagonist, turn-of-century gold-digging rat Richard Carmichael, has been dead for decades, having successfully murdered his son and replaced him with another boy, in order to secure an inheritance. No matter what John uncovers, Joseph can never really get justice for being drowned in a bathtub and having his life and identity given to someone else. His wrath has to fall on the only surviving heir to his father’s crime, the “Changeling” of the title, Senator “Joseph” Carmichael (played by withered horror veteran Melvyn Douglas). But isn’t Senator Carmichael also a victim of his “father’s” crime, too? It’s not a good thing to brainwash a boy from an orphanage into thinking he’s your biological son, just to make sure you get money you feel you’re owed. And, while Senator Carmichael demonstrates blustering performative anger at John’s accusations against his father, he quickly becomes unglued in the face of evidence. Conversely, no evidence is given that Senator Carmichael has behaved badly with the stolen inheritance, in fact, the first time we see him, he’s giving a speech at an arts fundraiser (that bastard!). Claire refers to him as the historical society’s “number one philanthropist.” Is his fate fair, to be yelled at by a curmudgeonly musician, have his astral body drawn into a conflagration, witness the murder of the boy he “became,” then collapse stone dead on the floor of his office?
Hmmmmmmmm. I don’t know. Here is my problem, and this is a greater issue I struggle with for real in real life. Kids getting abused, brainwashed, etc. – definitely not the kid’s fault. The kid is a victim. However, as adults we have a responsibility for our own behavior and choices. The guy knows he’s not legit on some level, yes? I mean we learned long ago on our old defunct podcast Waiting For the Train that repressed memories are bunk so I don’t know that I really believe in brainwashing either. On some level this guy knew, and if he tried to make any effort at introspection, he would have been able to come to terms with it and behave differently.
Now it seems, from what we can see, that he is being an OK adult but it’s still wrong that he allows himself to be thought of as the legit heir when he isn’t. (I’m foggy on the details – why couldn’t an adopted son be the heir? Because that’s another level I’d argue with and be mad about.) So as an adult you are responsible for your choices and how you behave, not as a child. Since he’s an adult I kind of think he doesn’t receive much grace from me.
Regarding the inheritance, the money was being left by Richard Carmichael’s step-father to Joseph, specifically, because he was the only child of his deceased daughter (Richard’s wife). Richard Carmichael didn’t have money of his own, he married into it, so he was Joseph’s caretaker, and had control of the money until Joseph came of age, but if he died early, the money would revert to charity. Basically, Richard’s rich stepfather hated him, specifically, but wanted his grandson Joseph to be well taken care of.
CAUSE OF DEATH
After viewing The Changeling, a movie about filicide-for-profit, identity theft, seances, and the terror of researching public records on microfiche, can you adequately describe, on a scale of one-to-five severed Acadia heads how well the movie exemplified the horror movie virtues of dread, shock, and horror?
Dread: 3 out of 5 maybe? I guess the dread level is a little lower because John seems rather capable and unruffled. He doesn’t seem maybe as disturbed by these things or as unable to handle them as other people might. I guess that makes the dread factor a little lower for me.
Shock: Also maybe 3 of 5? But that’s not a bad thing. I don’t really like shocks. I hate jump-scares and the like. I still found it to be an effectively scary movie.
Horror: 4 of 5? Because mostly of how horrible the original crime was, and that it’s so old so no punishment can be meted out to the murderous father. Watching that little boy get pulled under the water and held there by his father is pretty terrible.
Okay, Jenn, now that you’ve viewed a story where a grief-weary widower begrudgingly unfolds a decades-old child murder to put a ghost to rest, finding new love with a historian, and inadvertently killing a sitting US senator, what do you think you’ll remember most about it?
Probably how unruffled he was by all of it. And how creepy child ghosts are.
Much as last month’s Possession had a thematic twin in David Cronenberg’s 1979 mutant child masterpiece The Brood, The Changeling shares much with 1973’s “psychic thriller” by Nicholas Roeg, Don’t Look Now. Starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple mourning the death of their drowned daughter. Sutherland plays an architectural restorer working in Venice trying to make sense of his wife’s new infatuation with psychic phenomena, after she meets a blind medium who claims to have made contact with the couple’s dead daughter. Sutherland also has his share of mysterious visions, and pursues a tiny figure in a red raincoat resembling his daughter’s.
It’s good, not great, but Donald Sutherland’s charisma carries the thing, and its influence is far ranging (David Cronenberg cites it as an inspiration for the Brood). Whether or not it was a direct influence on The Changeling, it shares a central theme (grief) and a number of visual elements, most notably a red-and-white rubber ball bobbing about on the water. If you liked The Changeling, chances are good you’ll like this, too.