In the late 70’s the success of the book and film The Amityville Horror brought with it considerable interest in the subject of haunted houses. That story was supposedly based on actual events, which added another level to the horror. Another film that claimed to be based on a real life haunted house story is this 1980 shocker, The Changeling.
After the death of his wife and young daughter on an icy road in upstate New York, composer John Russell (George C. Scott) moves to Seattle to restarts his life. He takes a position teaching at a college and seeks out a home where he can work on his compositions. He is put into contact with Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) who works for the historical preservation society. She rents to him a large home, once owned by a wealthy and influential local family. As you might imagine, before long, strange things start happening.
It begins with a loud banging noise each morning at six o’clock. Soon, doors start opening and closing on their own and faucets are found running for no reason. Russell eventually discovers a secret stairway leading to a hidden room which seems to once have been occupied by a sickly child in a wheelchair. Eventually, Russell hosts a séance which does reveal a presence in the home. Later, when he listens to the recordings of the event, he can hear the voice of a child on the tape.
The spirit seems to be that of a young boy who was murdered, drowned, by his own father in the home sixty years earlier. The child claims to be named Joseph Carmichael. Thing is, the Joseph Carmichael who once lived in this home is an influential senator now. This leads Russell to believe that the boy was killed and replaced with a child from a local orphanage. Russell decides to seek out the truth, meanwhile even stranger and more dangerous events are taking place in the house.
The Changeling is based on events that supposedly happened to a composer named Russell Hunter. In the 60’s he rented a home right here in Denver (now I’m getting scared) near Cheesman Park. The park is a wonderful spot, but it also happens to be a former cemetery. Supposedly bodies are often found when renovation projects happen at the park. Those who go for that sort of thing often consider it one of Denver’s most haunted spots. Some have called into question Russell’s account of the events he claimed to have experienced at the home, but the film it inspired manages to be a solid haunted house film.
The film is really more of a thriller that happens to have some supernatural elements in its story. The film has a slow build to it. At first, what Scott’s character experiences doesn’t seem all that spooky. In fact, he seems pretty laid back about it all. Things become gradually more disturbing as the film progresses. This is punctuated by a particularly difficult to watch sequence in which Scott sees a vision of the young boy being drowned in a bathtub. By the time we reach the final sequence, and all hell is breaking loose, the audience is pretty creeped out. Although, the image of an empty old wheelchair chasing Trish Van Devere down the hallway is a little bit goofy.
George C. Scott is great, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. He gives his character great passion. Fueled by the loss of his own wife and daughter, he is determined to bring peace to the spirit of this deceased child. It is interesting that these strange happenings never seem to terrify Scott’s character, as if he can deal with anything having already been through his own personal hell.
The Amityville Horror may be the more iconic haunted house tale from this era, but truth be told, it doesn’t have that many scares. That is, unless you find the sight of James Brolin chopping wood to be terrifying. The Changeling, on the other hand, is a much more unsettling, and better made, film.
Though this film takes place in Seattle, and was inspired by events that took place in Denver, it was a Canadian production and was primarily filmed in The Great White North. Therefore, this is Forgotten Films’ contribution to the Oh, Canada blogathon being hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy. Be sure to check out all the other blogs taking part in the event.