One of the Most Influential Ghost Stories Ever | The Changeling at 40

About two years ago the critic and writer Sean T. Collins wrote an article called ‘The Monumental Horror Image’. The nature of these images and how they scare viewers does not come down to gore or a jump scare but rather to framing and movement (or lack thereof). As Collins writes of these monumentally frightening images “It’s not just scary, it’s wrong, like you’re seeing something that should not be”. Whether it’s the bathtub ghost in The Shining, the fungal corpse in Annihilation or the well of Ringu, all of these images have the capability to scare even if they are relatively normal, albeit environmentally warped, things.

The same can be said of the wheelchair in The Changeling. It threatens by presence not by action and that presence is enough to suggest pain and death-filled memories just as any slight movement will send anyone fleeing for their lives.

Although it was a film set in America with American actors playing American characters, The Changeling was funded and produced, if not completely filmed, in Canada. Peter Medak’s ghost story made its small budget back 20 times over. At the inaugural Genie Awards – Canada’s Oscars – in 1980 The Changeling won eight prizes including Best Canadian Film. Perhaps most importantly Martin Scorsese is a big fan. The Changeling is one of the most influential ghost stories ever and even 40 years on it manages to chill the blood.

John Russell (George C. Scott) is a recently bereaved composer and professor who moves from New York to Seattle. Seeking a change to help him move on from the tragic deaths of his wife and daughter, he rents an old Victorian mansion from the local historical society’s letting agent Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere). Soon however loud banging, shattering windows, and disturbing visions force Russell to look into the house’s history. What he finds is the mystery of a murdered child whose replacement, changeling if you will, leads the life they should have had.

Grief, as many will know, is a horrible but necessary emotion. It can burn hot or leave an ice block in the chest. It can fill you up with painful memory shards or hollow you out and leave you empty. Grief is good for a little while but a heart-stopping loss does not actually stop the heart, nor does it stop the clocks from ticking or the phones from ringing. Moving on is as much a part of healing as the boiling tears and empty, cold bitterness. What can help is finding something to focus on and John Russell is the first man to recognise this.

John Russell is a man of action much like Generals Buck Turgidson and George S. Patton in Dr Strangelove and Patton, respectively. Either Scott was never able to fully escape these two larger-than-life characters or they were just the kind of men he liked playing. John Russell spends much of the first act putting on a brave face, only allowing emotion out when he is isolated and alone. So, when the knocking starts Russell quickly abandons the teaching and composing that brought him to Seattle to investigate just what exactly has manifested in his house. This kind of attitude to being haunted is refreshing in two ways.

Firstly it’s always good to see a Scott character tackle a problem with two hands and beat at it until it makes sense. He’d bring a similar if slightly more jaded energy to The Exorcist III: Legion ten years later. Secondly it’s rare to see the subject of a haunting look at said haunting like a puzzle that needs solving rather than a trap to escape from. Soon enough Russell is consulting his handyman, then his fellow academics and eventually a medium. If none of this sounds scary that’s because it’s not, at least not for Russell. But for those of us watching Russell it’s terrifying and admirable to watch a man stare into the abyss and then spit into it.

The Changeling hinges on three sequences, each steadily increasing in spectral scale. Out of all of them the first is the most effectively horrifying. Although neither the viewer nor Russell know who or what is haunting the house at this point it’s pretty clear that the vison of the intimate and violent attic drowning has something to do with it.

As a man holds his legs. a weak crippled pre-teen boy struggles and thrashes in the copper tub before floating there, his image distorted by the now calm water. The child is Joseph Carmichael and it was his father that drowned his arthritically crippled son, replaced him with an orphan and thereby secured the wealthy Carmichael family’s future. It’s a dark, evil scene and aside from the drowning – a monumental image in its own right – the sad tale of the Carmichael boy is most often represented by the lonely, cobweb strangled wheelchair he used.

Ghost stories don’t need much to get across an eerie atmosphere but the best ones often go above and beyond by making normal, everyday occurrences and objects almost impossible to reconcile with reality. Think the sunlit but freezing room of The Uninvited, another Scorsese favourite, or the death photos in The Others or Pulse’s blurred and indistinct figures. Ghosts come in a variety of forms and although Joseph is never seen in The Changeling his presence is felt just as the film’s legacy is four decades on.

The séance scene – a necessity for any ghostly tale indebted to M. R. James – at the heart of The Changeling is never anything less than absolutely frightening. Medak ratchets the tension up quickly and never slows down. The camera cuts quickly between Russell and his guests whose sole focus is the medium, a convincingly entranced Helen Burns, whose heavy, circling pencil allows the ghost to speak. For a long while only the dulcet tones of the medium and her husband can be heard over the circling pencil and snatched paper. The scene ends with a glass flying across the room and shattering along with the tension Medak so expertly built. It’s a masterclass in how to use minimal sound and light to stretch nerves to breaking point.

The Changeling does come with a showstopper finale. But all that blowing wind and fiery destruction can’t really compare to the scenes that replace your blood with liquid nitrogen and swap your spine with a stack of ice cubes. The Changeling is a film about legacy at its heart and it fits that its legacy is to be so well remembered to warrant the prohibitively expensive 4K edition treatment. But it’s also a ghost story about a spirit consumed by rage and more than willing to act with a sledgehammer when a scalpel is no longer of any use. Sometimes, actually all the time, the rambling Victorian mansion is best left alone and an uptown apartment is a better rental opportunity.

The Changeling is streaming on Shudder.

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