John Russell (George C. Scott) is a renowned composer and music teacher who’s wife and son are killed in an accident. Still obviously knee-deep in the grieving process, he decides to rent a house in order to work on some new music and temporarily take his mind off the death of his wife and son. So, naturally, he rents the biggest, creepiest house he can find – a house so large and full of blind corners and long hallways that a whole commune of hippies could be living there and it would be a few days before John would even realize it. OK, maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration on my part, but the house is huge. And scary. Sooner than later, doors open and close by themselves and John begins to hear loud knocking noises coming from various parts of the house. John eventually confides in a female friend, and together they discover the hard way that a restless, tortured spirit haunts the large estate.
What ensues is a film that’s just as much a mystery as it is a haunted house movie. Intuition and investigation leads John to discover the home’s dark history, which in turn leads him to a scandal involving an important figure. The great thing about the character of John is that he has a motive for doing what he does that goes beyond the haunting and him being unable to rest at night; it ties into his role once upon a time as a father and husband, and now as someone who’s wife and child are six feet underground. In a way, John spends the movie coming to terms with his own pain while attempting to put a suffering spirit at ease.
The Changeling is slow. Very slow. And pretty boring for the most part. However, it’s not necessarily slow in a bad way. This film is a prime example of one of my least favorite terms when it comes to cinema: “deliberate pacing”. Everything is set up fairly quickly, as far as getting the lead character into the haunted house and establishing his tragic past, but then the film just sort of dwells on the idea of the haunting rather than showing you too much and going straight for the gags and set-pieces, which is very admirable, but it doesn’t make the film any less of a chore to get through at times.
One of the haunted house movie conventions that shows up in this film is the exploration of the house. It would only be natural for someone to investigate an unfamiliar home they’re staying in, especially if there were unexplained noises coming from certain rooms and they were looking for something in particular (although, personally, I would skip the exploration process altogether and just get the fuck out), but it’s somewhat interesting to see George C. Scott playing the person involved in said convention. The fact that he believably comes across as someone who would give two shits about a ghost is a testament to Scott’s acting ability and the fact that he’s one of the greats. Anyone familiar with George C. Scott would probably agree that it’s hard to picture him as someone who would be in any sort of distress and terrorized by a spirit. Like the ghost that haunts his character in this film, Scott’s presence is undeniable.
There are some great supporting characters in the film despite them being very cliche. There’s a groundskeeper who turns up at the beginning of the film when John first hears the loud knocking noises. The groundskeeper blames it on the furnace. It may not seem like a big deal, but characters like the groundskeeper are necessary because they keep the characters like John grounded in reality and logic. If everyone just agreed that there was indeed a haunting, it wouldn’t be as interesting of a film. There’s also some random lady who drops the big bombshell on John at a certain point, which is that the house was never fit to live in and shouldn’t have been rented out. I’m sure John was well aware of this by that point, but I guess this female character made it official. This character is very comparable to the “Prophet of Doom” character in slasher movies, in that their sole purpose is to warn people. The “Prophet” in this film may as well have said that the house has a “DEATH CURSE!”. There’s also a medium in the film, which is common for paranormal movies. Nothing much to say about the medium, but it does raise a question. Do any of you actually know a medium?
Aside from the fact that it’s slow (which, again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing), The Changeling simply isn’t that scary. It succeeds as a mystery film and, to a certain extent, as a horror film, but it’s just not as chilling as you’d probably expect, which isn’t so much a complaint as it is an observation. Regardless, The Changeling is quite simply a solid film all the way around. You have a powerhouse of a performance by George C. Scott, lots of ambitious and showy camera work, an appropriately haunting score by Rick Wilkins (who surprisingly didn’t work on many films), and what is arguably the most iconic possessed wheelchair in the history of cinema.