While there are a wealth of haunted house movies that have been released recently, they haven’t led to much rediscovery of older films in the genre. This is a bit of a shame. Poltergeist, The Shining and The Haunting are all household names and widely regarded as classics. But other great features, like The Changeling, aren’t so lucky.
The Changeling is not as well known as many of its contemporaries and that’s a shame because it is one of the best haunted house pictures of all time. It’s a chilling and sophisticated movie. As much as it is centered on a haunting, it also haunts the viewer. Unlike many features of its type, The Changeling is inherently about death. It is a supernatural thriller, but it opens with an incredibly shocking moment of real-life horror.
We begin with George C. Scott as John Russell, a loving father who is stranded in the snow with his wife and daughter. They are laughing, having fun and could not be happier. But within moments, his daughter and wife are struck by a car and killed instantly while John is forced to watch. It’s a painful scene to witness, but it sets not only the character arc in motion but the tone of everything else to come, as well.
The Changeling builds tension as it goes. It is a high-scale thriller, but still uses the most minimalist scares possible. That’s what makes it one of the best and is a large part of why it needs to be rediscovered and needs to find a new audience: This film will terrify you to your very core and does so almost immediately.
There is a scene in the film where John sees a ball bouncing down the front stairs. We have already learned by this point that the ball belonged to his daughter Cathy, so we understand its significance. So, we are naturally shocked when he grabs the ball, drives away with it and throws it off a bridge, watching it sink into the water below. Matters are further intensified when he arrives home and walks through the door, to see the ball bouncing down the stairs, once again. This scene remains my favorite scare in any haunted house feature and I still think of it as one of the most effective. It needs no gore, no visual effects or jump scares, yet it is one of the most well crafted scenes in horror history.
At the heart of The Changeling is a very effective murder mystery. This is not simply a “get the hell out of the house” movie like The Amityville Horror. John wants to do what he can for the spirit of the murdered boy that is trapped in his new home. He wants to help the entity move on, hoping that by doing this he will also be able to move on in the process. While it is intensely scary and atmospheric, The Changeling is never mean-spirited. It’s a genuine and heartfelt movie, and one that works on a variety of levels.
It’s tough to figure out why The Changeling never had the audience of some of its contemporaries. Maybe it didn’t have the star power behind it that The Shining and Poltergeist did. Still, it’s just as powerful and deserves just as much admiration.
This is not a movie that needs to be remade. There is nothing in it that could not be enjoyed by a modern audience. It has the pacing of a political thriller with the atmosphere of pure, gothic horror and makes the balance between the two look effortless. To everyone who has not yet seen The Changeling, I urge you to check it out. Take a chance on it and you’ll be glad you did.