The Changeling - An Elegant And Understated Ghost Story


s a child The Changeling like The Shining terrified me. The scenes of the drowning boy under the water in the bathtub scared me enough to have me cover my eyes. I first saw the film in the early 1980s one summer evening on HBO after coming home from my brother's baseball game at the local ball field. Decades later this movie doesn't terrify me as an adult, but I do appreciate and like it more. This is a fine movie that has aged very well in today's age of fast editing gimmicks and over-used CGI cheap tricks employed to scare audiences. This stylish and interesting film has suspense, mystery and acting.  


The Changeling is a 1980 Canadian film about a murdered boy who haunts a Victorian Seattle mansion of a classical music composer. The composer John Russell is played by legendary actor George C. Scott. When Scott discovers the haunting he finds more than a ghost and he sets out to uncover the mystery behind the haunting. The ghostly boy gives him clues that lead to a politician. 


John Russell came to live in this mansion with ghosts from his own past. His wife and child were killed in front of him while on holiday on a snow covered road. John decided a change of scenery would help him move on with life. He leaves New York and moves to Seattle to teach music at a university and compose in his spare time. He settles in a rented Victorian mansion that had sat empty for twelve years. His arrival reawakens the haunting.


As John follows the clues from the ghost he is aided in his research by Claire Norman who leased him the house through the local historical society. Claire is played by the real life wife of George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere. Together they unravel the mystery of ghost through a seance, research in libraries and digging up an old well hidden beneath a house.

The drowning boy turned ghost in The Changeling.

The movie is your classic haunted house story involving a ghost, banging doors, and breaking glass. There are some wonderfully scary moments in the movie such as the red bouncing ball coming down the stairs, the burning staircase, the drowning boy in the bathtub and the wicked child-size wheelchair chasing after Claire. 


This is an imperfect haunted house movie that is very good and almost great, but not to the level of greatness of say The Shining or The Exorcist. The Changeling filmed in 1978 and 1979, but not released until 1980 looks and feels more like a 70s movie than an 80s movie. It also was released the same year as the The Shining which again looks more like the 1970s than the 1980s. 1980 was a year of some good to great films that were produced at the end of the 1970s such as The Coal Miner's Daughter, The Elephant Man, Ordinary People, Raging Bull, Fame and Brubaker.

George C. Scott in front of the mansion from The Changeling.

The Changeling has the moody locale, the drab and dark interiors, the suspense, a couple of scary surprises, an interesting story, a fantastic soundtrack and some believable acting in it. George C. Scott seemed stiff in his acting as the movie begins, but as it unfolds and the tension and drama increases his acting seemed more relaxed. A couple of times his looks of disbelief at what is happening around him are realistically funny and stellar. It is no fault of Scott, but I do wish his role was written to convey more feelings of terror and fear at the ghost. The character of John is a bit cold and manages to stay too logical and rational given all the supernatural events - the screaming was saved for the role of Claire. 


I do love this movie because I enjoy a good, suspenseful haunted house movie. I love movies set in old mansions that have been closed up for years and need to reclaimed and explored by humans. I can smell the old wood and the dust. Old houses have a certain smell about them and they remind me of my family's old rock house set out in the lonesome countryside of Tennessee overlooking the fields and the river. Once you smell that aged wood, dust and stale air you never forget it. 


The movie is based on an alleged true story by playwright Russell Hunter. Hunter lived in an old mansion in Denver in the late 1960s and claimed it was haunted by a the ghost of a young boy. The same as the movie, the ghost gave clues as to where to find a certain item buried underneath a house. I believe in ghosts, I have seen two in my life, but this story seems a little farfetched for reality, but not a movie.

The wonderful styling of Trish Van Devere in The Changeling.

Normally I do not comment on wardrobe, hair or makeup in a movie, but this time is an exception because it was so well done and stylish. The wardrobe, hair and makeup on Trish Van Devere are impeccable. She looks stunning throughout the movie. The clothes she wears in nearly every scene have her dressed to perfection and her hair looks so good whether they style it up or down. Her wardrobe is so chic and sophisticated that it was a pleasure to watch her. Also that timeless Burberry trench coat that George C. Scott wears in the film had me lusting for that too. 


If you are hoping for a heart racing and frantic film then the pace of The Changeling will be too slow to keep your attention. The attention span of today's audience weened on news feeds, selfies, jump cuts, explosions and fake curated lives may however be bored by this movie. So if you like the action hero Hollywood crap of today this is not the movie for you. This movie is from a time when entertainment was a helluva lot more intelligent, sophisticated and elegant than the soul crushing junk of today.