The Changeling – 1980 (Review)

If you were writing a manor ghost story set in America, where would you put the house? Connecticut? New York? Savannah? New Orleans? Everyone will have his own list, of course, but Seattle is at the top of none of them. It’s just not the sort of place you think of for a manor ghost story. Big old haunted aristocratic houses need to be in places with long histories and established aristocracies.

The Changeling is a manor ghost story that’s not just set in Seattle, the main character actually has to travel to Seattle from New York to get to the haunted house. It’s the first of many, many things that strike the viewer as inexplicable choices on the part of the writers. There’s a quality to this film that’s not unlike constantly swatting away a fly that just keeps coming back. You think you’re watching a by-the-book manor ghost story, but there are these little niggling things about it that just don’t fit. It isn’t until after the movie is over that you start to realize that they weren’t annoying quirks – that the movie is doing this deliberately.

On the surface, the story seems pretty straightforward. A famous composer watches helplessly from inside a phone booth as his wife and daughter are killed in a freak road accident. He moves to Seattle, where he has friends who can secure him a lecturer position at the university, to rebuild his life. As part of the deal, they’re able to use their connections at the Historical Society to let him rent an implausibly huge abandoned victorian house; we’re told it hasn’t been inhabited in at least 12 years. Of course, the house is haunted. Par for the course, the signs start off small. A key on the piano won’t sound, but manages to play by itself when no one is in the room. Doors swing open for no reason. There’s a dreadful tapping sound that could be chalked up to air in the creaking plumbing system, except that it happens every day at exactly the same time. So far so good; this is the way these stories are supposed to work. We know what happens next: the signs that the house is haunted escalate until the inhabitant can no longer deny it, and a confrontation with the ghost either ends in his death or results in the expurgation of the demon. In any case, we will uncover the story of why the spirit is attached to this particular house, what it was that makes him unable to rest.

But the story doesn’t quite go like that. At every turn, things are just a bit off.

For one thing, our hero never seems frightened by the ghost. It’s not unusual in haunted house films for people to be running upstairs when they should be running out the door, but they cast George C. Scott in the role of composer John Russell for a reason. The man calmly walks up the stairs; he’s consciously trying to find out exactly what’s going on.

It doesn’t take him long to arrive at the conclusion that the house is haunted, and that’s another thing that’s a bit off. Normally, we would go through a long song and dance about there being a rational explanation for everything. But this movie isn’t playing that game. The very first sign we get that the house is haunted is undeniable: a key on the piano slams down all by itself after we’ve just seen (Dr.?) Russell bang on it a couple of times to no avail. Pointedly, he’s out of the room when this happens. The audience knows immediately that there’s a supernatural cause behind everything, and Russell isn’t too far behind. We’re not even halfway through the film before he’s asking the Historical Society more or less point blank whether anyone has complained about the house being haunted, and while his contact denies it, the Obligatory Creepy Woman who works there tells him that the house "doesn’t want people." "So there have been incidents," he replies calmly, his theory effectively confirmed.

Next step: bring in a medium. Conveniently, there’s a Department of Parapsychology at whatever university this is supposed to be, and none other than Victor Bergman is in charge of it! (Can it be entirely a coincidence that Barry Morse is the casting choice here and the composer’s name is Dr. John Russell? Space: 1999 had a Dr. Helena Russell, and Moonbase Alpha was commanded by a John Koenig.) He is able to recommend a true medium, and so they undertake a seance. But here again, we’re not coloring entirely within the lines. The medium is anything but Zelda Rubenstein. She’s completely detached and professional and acts in every way like anyone else just doing her job. If her job happens to involve communicating with the dead, what of it? People have jobs where they talk on the phone, don’t they? There are no cryptic statements about the house being "clear" or whatever else – it’s all strictly by the book. Which, of course, is as about as far out of the book as you can get in this genre. There’s general agreement that the seance is the highlight of the film, and it’s not hard to take the point. There’s something really unsettling about watching someone just go through the motions of summoning, and borderline ignoring, a spirit that is clearly real.

Having firmly established that there’s a ghost in the house, Russell sets out to find out who it is and what it wants. The film’s only true red herring surfaces and is dismissed almost immediately: there was a girl in this house who died in a car accident, but the ghost isn’t her. It it instead someone connected to a seemingly minor character that we inexplicably (though now it is explained) tarried on for a few minutes near the begining of the film. Again, in contrast to how these films normally work, Russell has no trouble uncovering the details of what happened. There are no surprise twists or late revelations. The pace is as steady as those banging sounds that happen in the house every morning at 6am precisely.

Presently, events are out of Russell’s hands. He’s solved the mystery and confronts the man who is … actually isn’t responsible, but is nevertheless the target of the ghost’s wrath. Technically, it’s a spoiler to reveal it, I suppose, but the title already more or less gave it away. A "changeling," after all, is a child who isn’t himself – an alien child playing the role of a real child who has been kidnapped, killed, or is otherwise out of the picture. The son of the family who lived in the house was such a person, the father having killed his biological son because he was lame and likely to die before he could inherit his grandfather’s money. And here is the culmination of things that are "off" about this film – the reason that the film has been making seeming (but actually deliberate) missteps in telling what at first glance looks like a completely straightforward ghost story. The ghost should actually be angry at the father who killed and replaced him. But he isn’t. He’s angry at the person who took his place, even though that person was never told what had been done. He suspects it – or at least suspects something – but that’s not the same things as knowing. The ghost is focused on the wrong target, and that’s actually revealing.

The best works of art all chew on ultimately irresolvable problems. If, for example, all David Lynch movies, or Philip K. Dick novels, or Beethoven symphonies, or whatever else, seem the same to you, then because they ultimately are. Lynch is fascinated by the fact that ultimate good and ultimate evil seem to exist alongside each other, completely separately and completely together, and absolutely all of his movies are about exploring that contradiction, when you blow away the quirky dust on top. This movie is about the simultaneous correlation and lack of correlation between effort and reward. Wealth is supposed to accrue to those who provide value. And sometimes it does. It isn’t clear whether Russell was born aristocratic, but it doesn’t matter: he’s earned his wealth. An early scene shows us his first day of class, in which he confronts a filled hall of over 500 students even though only 29 originally registered for the class. Apparently absolutely every composition student feels they have something to learn from him; before the instructor was announced, we only had the 29 fulfilling their requirement, presumably. And yet, there is also a scene where Russell is somehwat dismissive of a servant who is trying to express sympathy for him. He seems like a nice man, but he is clearly also an aristocrat. Perhaps by birth – we are simply never told.

But of course the nexus of this contradiction is the Senator who is the titular changeling. It’s a fair bet he would not be a senator but for his "father"’s money and connections. And yet, every indication is that he’s earned his prestige. Like with everything, there are senators and there are senators. Getting to the Senate might have a lot to do with accident of birth, but what you do when you get there does not, and the movie makes clear, in its way, that this particular Senator is one of the hard-working ones. His success is as much his own as it is his luck.

Looked at that way, it’s clear what the ghost is angry about. The lame boy drowned by his father in the bathtub seems unlikely to have even been a Senator. If we had to guess, we’d say he were an ordinary lame trust fund kid – the kind who spends all his time sheltered, reading books that don’t matter, never engaging with the world, squandering his inheritance. The ghost is angry not so much because someone took his place, but because he knows the person who took his place is better than him, that his father "traded up" in killing him and replacing him with an orphan. There is a peculiar belief that wealth indicates virtue almost independently of whether it actually does. That is, surely there are many people who are wealthy because they created value for the world, but there are just as surely many people who are wealthy fron rent-seeking or inheritance. Interestingly, both brands of people tend to see themselves as more deserving than everyone else. But if there’s a case for that in the first class, there surely isn’t in the second, and there is nothing so vicious as someone defending something they haven’t earned, but which they depend on for their sense of self worth all the same. The ghost is less angry that his father took his life than he is that he took his self worth. The Senator would have been OK anyway. He might not have been a Senator, but he would have been a satisfied individual who pulled down a just reward for a good day’s work. The crippled child in the attic literally has nothing but his inheritance. It would have been better for everyone if he had never been born. And so he’s using a grieving father to get revenge on someone who isn’t the proper moral object of his vendetta. Our demon really is a demon.

Once that is realized, everything else makes sense. This child isn’t evil because he’s a ghost, he was probably going to be evil anyway. And it’s now clear why he doesn’t mind that everyone knows he’s haunting the house – or why he keeps targeting people that it doesn’t make sense to target. The film’s silliest scene – where an empty wheelchair chases one of Dr. Russell’s friends from the attic all the way down to the main hall – now doesn’t seem as silly. The movie wasn’t playing that for a (terribly misplaced) scare – it was simply character development.

Speaking of scares, I saw this because it appeared on Martin Scorcese’s List of 11 Scariest Horror Films. Is it scary? Hell yes. But only at the begining, when it’s still in straight-ahead manor house ghost story territory. The director takes that "wandring upstairs in a creepy house" feeling up to 11 and beyond. You’ve never seen anything quite this unsettling before, even though you have the impression you’ve seen a thousand films just like it. The seance scene helps too. I’m not sure if "frightening" is the right word, but it’s at least a little bit unnerving. After that seance, though, the movie simply stops being scary. Everything is out in the open, then, and we pretty much know where we’re headed from there. The ghost is a ghost, you know when it’s coming, it doesn’t take long before you know what it’s up to. The fun from there is primarily deciphering the theme.

All in all, it’s a very good movie. It’s not one of the greats, but not everything has to be. It’s far above average, both for films in general and horror movies in particular. Worth your time.

Overall Rating A-

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