The Changeling: a lost opportunity for horror

The Changeling movie posterThe 1980 horror film The Changeling represents the best and the worst of horror movies. Directed by Peter Medak and conceived by Russell Hunter (purportedly based on his own experience), it stars George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere. Composer John Russell relocates to Seattle after the death of his family and rents an old mansion. Beset by strange occurrences in the house, he becomes obsessed with the mystery behind the haunting and uncovers the hidden past of a powerful senator. It’s a compelling premise, but falls apart toward the end—the bane of many a horror story. I watched the film for the first time recently, having heard good things about it. I can easily see what makes it a good supernatural story: the gradual presence of the spirit, the spooky seance, the enigma that keeps us guessing what the title means in terms of the plot. But why does it end up so disappointing?

Abandoned Backstory

First off, the backstory fails to deliver. Yes, the death of Russell’s daughter helps explain why he becomes so obsessed with finding out what happened to the young boy in the attic room, but the story does not connect the two in an emotionally compelling way. I can imagine another script showing him equally haunted by the death of his daughter, but we do not get that here. The ghost sends the daughter’s ball bouncing down the stairs—one nice touch, but we need more of that.

Additionally, Russell’s composer background starts out as a useful plot device. The ghost announces its presence to the audience by striking a note on the piano. Later, Russell learns that the piece he has just composed derived from a music box he finds in the attic room, having entered his brain by some supernatural means. But halfway through the story, this musical aspect is abandoned and never revisited. It ends up being superfluous.

Nonsensical Powers

The ghost initially clamors for Russell’s attention without malicious intent. You feel yourself drawn into its story along with Russell. But later the ghost turns malevolent and acquires nonsensical powers. Why? An empty wheelchair chases Russell’s comrade investigator and real estate agent through the halls of the house, forcing her to tumble down the stairs. It sends a chandelier crashing to the floor, narrowly missing Russell’s head. Was the ghost angry because Russell solved the mystery but no justice was served? That might make a good argument except the ghost then causes the senator to die (after causing an accident on the streets of Seattle that kills a detective). If the ghost had such powers, why did it not destroy the senator earlier?

Overkill

Subtle works so much better than overkill to create the right mood in horror. The movie starts out subtle, but we get hit over the head with a hammer with the young boy’s voiceover: “Father, father, my medal.” Okay. We already know the story with the father. We already know what happens to the medal. The voiceover is extraneous, and actually made me laugh. Haunting children’s voices are such a cliche in horror and impossible to pull off well. The violent ending, with the house going up in flames and the death of the senator, may have been dictated by the Canadian film company thinking it had to have a “Hollywood” finish. But by that point, The Changeling had changed from a gripping, satisfying story to a sad disappointment. Maybe someone had substituted one film for another part-way through.

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