The Haunting" and Clayton's "The Innocents" to name just two). Peter Medak's 1980 film "The Changeling" continues this long tradition of ghost stories in a Gothic horror vein, by having at its core an ominous haunted mansion, and the terrifying journey that its latest inhabitant must endure in order to solve the mystery behind some serious ghastly disturbances.
"The Changeling" is the story of John Russell (George C. Scott), a successful musician and composer who has just lost his wife and daughter in a tragic car accident while on a winter vacation. Still mourning his loss but hoping to rebuilt his life, Russell moves to Seattle in order to teach music at the local university, and leases a huge abandoned mansion that belongs to the Historical Society, hoping to find the quietness to compose again. The mansion, named the Chessman House, is enormous in size and supposedly has been empty for twenty years. However, Russell begins to experience a series of supernatural events that make him begin to wonder if he is truly alone at the house. Noises and other occurrences point out to the presence of a child who lived there a long time ago. While reluctant at first, Russell decides to investigate the mystery in order to find peace for both him and the ghost, and begins to discover the secrets of the Chessman House's past and the mysterious events that took place there.
Based on a story by Russell Hunter (and supposedly based on his real experiences living in Cheessman Park, Denver), the movie was written by William Gray and Diana Maddox, who cleverly built a captivating tale of mystery that slowly unfolds as Russell's investigation takes place. Putting the genre's conventions to good use, the writers follow closely the classic Gothic pattern for ghost stories, keeping an appropriate balance between the horror and the mystery. And mystery is the key of "The Changeling"'s screenplay, as the plot is filled with many twists and turns that build up a story that works like a hybrid between detective fiction and horror film, with Russell being akin to a hardened tough guy on a difficult case. This focus on Russell's research is perhaps "The Changeling"'s main departure from its otherwise classicist approach, but it's one that truly makes the story very interesting, particularly because of the and the fact that the main characters are very well developed, elevating the story from its formulaic origin.
Director Peter Medak creates an enormously atmospheric movie that really takes good advantage of the story's decidedly Gothic style. With a superbly elegant and classy work of cinematography by John Coquillon, Medak perfectly uses his location to make the Chessman House itself an important character in the movie. It's not only a mere set, Medak makes it an extension of the presence that lives with Russell there, much like director Robert Wise did decades before in the legendary classic "The Haunting". And as in Wise's film, Medak's "The Changeling" succeeds in making a horror movie where the terror comes from simple and mundane objects instead of complicated special effects. In "The Changeling", a red ball can be a more terrifying element than any monster. Medak plays with what's unseen and unknown to create horror at its purest sense. The great focus placed on mystery and suspense is classic Gothic horror, and the film's heavy atmosphere of dread and somber tone truly make it a proud heir of the ghost stories that precedes it.
Better known for his remarkable performance in Franklin J. Schaffner's "Patton" (1970), George C. Scott once again shows his enormous talent as the tortured composer John Russell. Scott's acting feels natural and realistic, easily making his character come to life with an honest charm that makes hard not to feel identified with him. Certainly, Scott's image fits nicely in the film's context, as he creates a character tough enough to the task, yet sensible, fragile and wounded. George C. Scott's real life wife Trish Van Devere plays his character's counterpart, Claire Norman, a member of the History Society and the one who helped Russell to get the house. In a character that easily could had become a cliché, Van Devere delivers a natural performance that enhances the film's subtle mix of realism with dark fantasy, and while her screen time is considerably smaller, her performance is effective. The film has also great performances by Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh and John Colicos in the supporting roles.
Overshadowed by the better known horror films that were released in the same year (namely Kubrick's "The Shining" and Deodato's "Cannibal Holocaust"), Medak's "The Changeling" has many elements that make him one of the "forgotten" great horror movies of the 80s. With its classicist style and ominous Gothic atmosphere, it's certainly a throwback to a subtler kind of horror, more disturbing and unnerving than graphically shocking. In terms of style, Medak's "The Changeling" could be seen as the polar opposite to Spielberg and Hooper's "Poltergeist" (another great ghost story of the 80s), as both films tell the story of a haunted house, but with completely different craftsmanship. Restrained and simple, "The Changeling" may feel slow at times, particularly as it unfolds it's complex plot (which at times may be too complex for its own good); however, the slow pacing only enhances the suspense and tension built by director Peter Medak and ultimately benefits the movie as a whole.
"The Changeling" remains Peter Medak's most accomplished and remarkable film, as while his return to horror in "Species II" wasn't really bad, it was far from the supreme achievement he did in this film. Classy, subtle and restrained, "The Changeling" offered a modern take on the classic style of ghost stories, and left a mark that did found echo: the famous Japanese horror "Ringu" clearly borrowed certain elements from "The Changeling"'s plot and tone. With its haunting atmosphere of nightmare, superb work of cinematography and its appropriate slow rhythm, "The Changeling" is a worthy heir to the style of Gothic ghost stories that directors Wise and Clayton seemed to perfect in the 60s. A remarkable modern Gothic.