The impressive Cheesman house has a dark and sinister history: and it appears that “it doesn’t want people”. It does have a new resident in the form of John Russell (George C. Scott), who will have to face the horrors and ominous revelations of the old house’s menacing history. Genuinely disturbing in a supernatural and understated in its instigation, the recently restored The Changeling beckons you to approach the horrors of its house within the safety of your own.
John Russell’s planned winter holiday with his wife and daughter comes to a terrifying end when they die in a car accident as he phones for roadside assistance when their car breaks down. Seeking some solitude from his grief, the music composer and lecturer seeks accommodation where he can work on completing his new symphony. An ideal home is available for rent from the local Historical Society. Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) is keen to accompany John to his new lodgings to assist with his move and explain the long vacant house’s importance to the society, despite some acerbic reactions from some of the older members who know more of its history than she. Indeed Russell’s residence seems to trigger a series of odd but minor effects, instances of strange noises and movement of objects, breaking glass and even his daughter Cathy’s ball randomly bouncing down the stairs. He puts these down to strange coincidences but their incidence increases, with disturbing banging noises. Old artefacts and a slim wheelchair in the upper room seem to demand John’s attention. When he learns that the house has a “history of things happening”, Claire suggests that a clairvoyant might be able to conduct a séance to see if there are any spiritual shenanigans connected with these creepy occurrences. It soon becomes clear that traumas have occurred both inside and outside of the house with potential repercussions that could spread to the present day in more ways than they could have imagined.
The Changeling is often cited, correctly, as one of the most classic and creepy haunted house movies. The undoubted pinnacle of haunted house films The Haunting (1963) is terrifying but the premise that it is haunted is there from the opening, as it is the whole reason for the protagonists being in the house in the first place. In However, in The Changeling we are presented with a mystery to uncover. What sets The Changeling apart from many examples of the horror sub-genre is its pace, intellect and tone. While it contains the sudden jumps expected of the genre, the revelations are slow to unfold and do so in the context of the protagonist’s grief. As a result when the truths are revealed the spiritual elements are intertwined with darker contemporary issues which also address elements of both fear and power. This adds a degree of realism to even the most obvious genre scares and adds to the convincing nature of the story, despite the ghostly frights that place the film in the realm of the fantastical.
Included in the release are a plethora of extra features that are fascinating, particularly in the contemporaneous perspectives they offer, such as ‘The Music of The Changeling’ with Kenneth Wannberg, as the unexpected musical themes accentuate the tone of the film beyond the protagonist’s profession. Perhaps most interesting to the viewer is ‘The House on Cheesman Park’ – The Haunting True Story of The Changeling documentary which looks at historical factors that relate to the underlying district, its dark history and its modern day environment, including a haunted mansion that is, admittedly, less gothic than its cinematic counterpart but in many ways more interesting because of it. But these are just some of the plethora of offerings on the disc.
Overall this is a nicely restored version of a classic haunted house film. It shies from viscera and instant scares in favour of characterisation and revelation. But that is not to deny the horror; the central premise for the story is revealed not simply in an instant flashback but in an extended sequence that is utterly terrifying. Without this scene the film would not have garnered more than a PG rating, although it is distinctly adult in its execution and themes.