Director: Peter Medak
Screenplay: Russell Hunter, William Gray and Diana Maddox
Cast: George C. Scott (as John Russell); Trish Van Devere (as Claire Norman); Melvyn Douglas (as Sen. Joseph Carmichael); John Colicos (as De Witt); Jean Marsh (as Joanna Russell)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #42
Winter. A family, John Russell (George C. Scott) and his wife and young daughter, have had to push their broken down car along a snow covered road. John goes to a telephone booth to call a toll truck only for an accident to happen, sudden on screen, that kills both the people he loves. As an opening its one of the most sobering for any horror film.
From here what interests me about The Changeling is that it has a lot of the traits I hate in modern horror cinema but manages to openly get away with them and succeed instead. After his trauma, John moves to an old elaborate house where its immediately clear the house is haunted. In any other film the following series of sudden shocks and bombastic orchestral stings would be cringe worthy but there's a significant grace to the film that conveys this to its ideal results, that it's not overbearing but adds greater unease instead. Director Peter Medak rightly lets silence and moments of ease filter in-between which helps drastically, as John reacts to the events (until the more extreme events take place) with stoic surprise, finding that a ghost of a physically disabled boy haunts the building. The greater sense of grandeur to the film as well, a drama for the most part as John discovers a conspiracy linked to the haunting involving politician Sen. Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) and his birth right, contributes to the film, far removed from an obnoxious rollercoaster ride but an elegant supernatural drama which gladly enters the extravagant as ghostly events take place and Rick Wilkins's orchestral score reaches euphoria constantly.
The shocks themselves are incredibly unnerving, not the cheap scares of a person suddenly jumping out repeatedly but very well set up using openly un-human actions that are done subtly; their style is set up in the first, an expertly done moment involving merely a piano key, which is continued throughout the rest of the narrative. For two-thirds, as suggested, merely the simplest things are enough to cause an eeriness to the event. This film, telegraphing its importance, makes a tiny little red ball the symbol of fear through the most elaborate of shocks, as it does a wheelchair, characters themselves alongside the extravagant house itself. A great sense of melancholy is felt in terms of mood and it's little details at first which cause surprise, of sounds that could be explained by the giant boiler in the basement or a piece of glass merely falling out of a high window to the attic. When things start to escalate its helps that John's characterisation is that of someone willing to accept the belief around him with the logic of a real person, not the cliché of denial, not openly willing to tell police of details knowing he will be seen as mad, but willing to bring in mediums at the point he believes that what he's witnessed cannot be rationally explained away. When the film gets more bombastic, staircase banisters suddenly catching on fire and such mayhem, it's at the time when the film has gone through its drama up to its most emotionally tempestuous moment, the rage of the ghost bursting loose, completely justifying the extreme shift into destructive ghostly effect.
The elegance of The Changeling's style is a great service to it as well. Warm colours contrast against its coldness especially in exteriors, its tendency to jump back and forth in time like memories which can take you off-guard but is always inspired when it takes place. The acting as well is commendable for grounding the supernatural events into plausibility, George C. Scott admirable in his performance alongside the other cast members who add seriousness to the film. This seriousness, not stodgy grimness but a sense of immaculate sense of drama, can be felt throughout The Changeling and why it succeeds.