“That house is not fit to live in. It doesn’t want people.”
I was too young to see The Changeling when it released in 1980, starring George C. Scott as a grieving composer who uproots his life from New York to Seattle following the death of his wife and child. Years later, on a soggy Sunday afternoon, sitting in front of the second hand black and white television in the living room of my parent’s house, I watched it on the local cable channel, KCTS.
Every commercial break, owing to the persistent rain and generally disagreeable weather of the Pacific Northwest, my older brother and I would take turns running out to adjust the television antenna. A big old heavy contraption that, more or less, taught me the general direction from my house to Seattle – after all, that’s where the cable network was located, and if I managed to point the antenna is the right direction, shouts would erupt from the house, “That’s it! All clear!”
Although, edited for television and through sometimes static-riddled reception, I eagerly consumed this delightfully terrifying tale, set in Seattle (at the time, this blew my mind) – part mystery, part drama, part ghost tale – and experienced the first truly memorable moment of horror in my life. Such was the impression made upon me, that, to this day, it haunts a small corner of my thoughts.
As John (George C. Scott) has begun to learn more about the mysterious events happening in the Seattle house he rents from the historical society, all the while trying to cope with the untimely passing of his wife and child, a presence in the house decides to make itself known to him. It does so by dropping a ball, the same ball John’s daughter once played with, down a flight of stairs.
When John takes note, and hurries to check the top of the stairs. Unsure of what he’ll find, he’s confronted with nothing, the darkness, an abyss.
This moment is chilling, even in a horror film dating more than 30 years back, because it forces the audience to face what the characters are facing. The unknown. And sometimes, nothing is more terrifying than what we don’t know, or understand. It’s horror 101, and it’s surprising how many films get it wrong. The execution here, in The Changeling, is perfect.
Notable also are the concepts of auto writing and the recording of electronic voice phenomenon, used to great effect in The Changeling during a scene in which a seance is held in John’s home. Both of which, when paired with the performances of the actors, provide an unnerving atmosphere that unsettles you viewing after viewing.
George C. Scott, who costars here with his wife, Trish Van Devere (playing Claire Norman of the Seattle Historical Society) , is absolutely irreplaceable in the role. The house, too, although I was saddened later to learn was nothing more than an elaborate set, is – in itself – a key character in the film. The closer the audience gets to the point of origin within the house, the smaller and tighter the quarters, and darker still the lighting. It’s as if we are no longer merely speculating upon the dark secret of the Carmichael family, but forced now to physically inhabit it, to make it known, to right the wrong.
The Changeling is the perfect lazy afternoon horror film, one that strikes the right balance between scary and entertaining. Will it leave you with nightmares? Hard to say, but it did me … for a few weeks, back in the 80s. New audiences may find The Changeling a bit dated, but it remains a solid haunted house tale.
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