The Changeling is one of the all-time great ghost stories of its era and in the horror genre in general. A classy affair, it starred George C. Scott, who had won (and refused) an Academy Award in 1970 for Patton. His then wife, the lovely Trish Van Devere, co-starred.
Directed by Peter Medak, The Changeling is a perfect exercise in subtlety...scares built on tension, atmosphere and sounds.
John Russell (George C. Scott) is driving through Upstate New York with his wife Joanna (Jean Marsh) and
their daughter Kathy (Michelle Martin). Their car stalls in the snow.
John gets out and goes to a pay phone to call for assistance. As Joanna and Kathy are playing on the road, a high speed pick up truck is coming towards them. It slams into the two, killing them instantly.
John is a noted composer and pianist...but this tragedy forces him to move out of his luxury Manhattan
apartment. There are just too many reminders of the family he's lost.
He moves to Seattle to teach at the school he graduated from - and decides the best thing to do is to rent a house. A friend recommends that he find his home through the Historical Preservation Society.
John meets an agent for the society named Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) outside of a huge estate. The house hasn't been lived in for the last twelve years. John
accepts the offer and moves in. One afternoon, after he has left his music room...the piano plays a note by itself.
The music class he teaches at the college is a success and is packed with students. John also finds
time to attend a fundraiser for the local symphony orchestra. There, he listens to a speech by Senator
Joe Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) who is also a member of the Preservation Society.
Back at home, he is awakened by loud banging noises. He is also increasingly haunted by memories of his family. One night, he hears something upstairs. Walking up the top floor, he goes into a bathroom where he sees a bathtub
filling up with water. When he moves closer to it, he sees the image of a little boy submerged in it.
At the Preservation Society's office, he tries to find out from Claire if there has been any trouble in the house. She says there hasn't been - but a secretary tells John that the place isn't fit for humans. That starts to be obvious when John is standing outside the home and a piece of glass falls from an attic window.
Upstairs, he sees that the door to the attic is closed off. He breaks the lock and enters it. There he
finds the room covered in cobwebs...and among other things, a music box and a child's wheelchair.
With Claire's help, he discovers that in 1909, a man named Walter Barnard lived there. He had a daughter
named Cora, who was killed when she was hit by a coal cart.
Strange occurances continue...such as a child's toy ball bouncing down the staircase with no one in sight. Convinced there's a paranormal presense in the house, John invites a medium named Leah Harmon (Helen Burns) over.
During a seance, she tries to communicate with the Barnard girl. In a trance, Leah writes down words on pieces of paper. But the name that comes up is not Cora. It's the name of a boy: Joseph. When asked if he died in the house, a glass flies across the room and smashes against the wall.
When John plays the tape back of the seance, he can hear the dead boy's responses. In a flashback, we see what the boy was trying to communicate. He was drowned in the bathtub by his father.
Further research reveals to John and Claire that Richard and Emily Carmichael lived in the house before the Barnards, from 1899 to 1906. The Carmichaels had a child named Joseph, who was crippled.
The boy would probably die at a young age and the family stood to lose a huge inheritance from Richard's father. The wealth would go to charity. Joseph's father pretended to take Joseph to Europe for therapy...but murdered his son instead.
He then replaced the child with a kid from the local orphanage...who stayed in Europe until after World War I. When he came back to America at the age of 18 ("cured"), no one knew that he was actually a replacement for the dead son. That son grew up to be Senator Joe Carmichael.
Another clue that came up in the seance tape was the word "well" - so John concludes it must be the spot where Joseph's body was buried.
He finds that an old nearby well now has a house built over it. The woman that lives there initially denies John the right to dig up the floor in one of the bedrooms...but changes her mind when her daughter has nightmares of a dead boy coming up out of it.
John and Claire do indeed uncover the bones of a child - and when John goes back for a second visit, he finds a medallion with the name Joseph Patrick Carmichael inscribed on it.
After he confronts the senator with his find, Captain DeWitt (John Colicos) is sent to the house to retrieve the medallion. John refuses and the officer mysteriously dies in a car accident as he leaves.
Senator Carmichael then agrees to speak with John. He is confronted with the evidence that the reason he is wealthy and in power...is due to the murder of an innocent boy some 70 years before. He is a "changeling." The senator vehemently denies the accusation.
Claire shows up at the house but John isn't there. Suddenly, a dusty old wheelchair begins chasing her until it crashes at the bottom of the staircase.
John arrives but the house is falling apart. The walls begin to rattle and a fire is set. John has a vision of the senator climbing the stairs to his death.
John and Claire make it safely outside and the entire house goes up in flames. At that moment, Senator Carmichael suffers a fatal heartattack. Little Joseph has finally been avenged and all that remains is his wheelchair.
The Changeling is a very strong haunted house movie and is made enjoyable by the great, understated acting of the cast.
George C. Scott is exceptional as the new owner of the troubled mansion and Van Devere adds fine support.
The images of the boy drowning, the creepy hallways of the spacious house, the darkened attic: all these are masterfully done. The camerawork is unique, making the viewer feel as if they are on Scott's journey throughout the house and its history.
This is solid horror moviemaking and very few ghost movies have delivered the same chills that some scenes in this film do. Period.
Director Peter Medak would dabble in television...and in this same calendar year, he delivered the excellent TV thriller The Babysitter starring William Shatner, Patty Duke and Stephanie Zimbalist.