31 Days of Hell: The Changeling

31 Days of Hell continues with a review of The Changeling.

"I'm looking for hookers.
Has anyone seen any?"
Called by Martin Scorsese ‘one of the top 11 scariest films of all time’, Peter Medak’s 1980 haunted mansion story The Changeling is one of the most hair raising and profoundly sad horror films of the last 30 years.  

Starring George C. Scott alongside his wife/actress Trish Van Devere, the film tells the story of John Russell, a musician and recent widower who takes residence within a Victorian-era mansion in an effort to rebuild his career and personal life.  Largely alone in the mansion, Russell begins to notice strange banging sounds, disembodied voices and poltergeist activity. As apparitions of a little boy begin to appear, Russell enlists the help of a medium in an effort to make contact with whatever entity seems to be haunting the house.  What Russell discovers behind the source of the eerie phenomenon will shake him (and us) to the core.

Of the unfinished business ghost story genre, The Changeling is among the few horror films that not only manages to drum up old fashioned scares but also manages to genuinely upset and disturb.  Once the reason for the paranormal activity is revealed, a genuinely somber dark shadow creeps over the picture and makes us rethink ghosts and the afterlife.  In one breath, the audience goes from fearing the entity to feeling genuine sympathy for it, with the real horror being the cause of it all.  Much like the vastly inferior Stir of Echoes, John Russell and the entity find themselves working together to track down those who wronged him when he was still alive, and the focus shifts from that of an overt horror film to something like a detective story. 

"Do you know where these hands
have been? Disgusting places...
I tell ya. Dis-gust-ing places."
It goes without saying that George C. Scott was a really great actor and his performance lends credibility and weight to a premise that, in lesser hands, could well have been laughed off the screen.  Scott makes it believable and real that someone could not only come to grips with a paranormal being, but would find himself fighting for it as well.  Equally strong is Trish Van Devere, whose fear transforms into devastation once she too learns why the entity is not at rest.  And then there’s the late veteran actor Melvyn Douglas as the mercurial United States Senator Joseph Carmichael with more ties to the strange hauntings than he himself realizes, evoking both anger and confusion as to why his comfortable existence is being assailed by the investigative John Russell.

Steeped in old fashioned gothic horror, The Changeling is a surprisingly bittersweet ghost story.  No matter how frightening the proceedings get, the entity itself manages to provide viewers with a sad reminder of the terrible cruelty which landed it within the haunted walls of the mansion in the first place.  One of the few horror films to elicit both goosebumps and tears in equal measure. 

-Andrew Kotwicki