Musings for Halloween: “The Changeling” (1980)…

*****SPOOKY SPOILERS AHEAD!*****

Many years ago, I remember seeing a trailer for a then-new horror movie coming out which featured George C. Scott (“Patton” “A Christmas Carol”) living in an apparently haunted house. The one thing that made me nearly wet my seat was the sight of an antique wheelchair, shrouded in cobwebs and sans occupant, chasing a terrified woman down a flight of dark, creaky stairs. Something about that moment really made my hairs stand up. I wanted to see it, but somehow the window of opportunity slipped by my teenaged self, and I never viewed “The Changeling” theatrically. A few years later, in my parents’ darkened living room, huddled in front of the 25″ Zenith, I finally saw the film through occasional ads for Burger King, Right Guard deodorant, and god knows what else interrupting the broadcast every 10-15 minutes (commericals–the curse of US broadcast television).

I will never forget the sight of that old, cobwebbed wheelchair springing to life in the theatrical trailer–serious nightmare fuel.

Distracting ads aside, the movie really worked on my nerves. I was about high school age at that point, and old enough to realize this movie wasn’t some lazy, B-movie ghost story–this was A-list stuff. It featured Oscar-winner (and refuser) George C. Scott as a saddened widower living in a large haunted Seattle mansion, trying to solve the tragic puzzle of a boy murdered within its walls 74 years earlier. The whole mood of the film was melancholy and understated. Despite my hardwired atheism (since birth, I’m afraid), I do love a good haunted house story, and “The Changeling” was right up there with my other favorite, 1973’s “The Legend of Hell House” (for the record, I enjoyed 1963’s “The Haunting”, though I find it a smidgen overrated, to be honest). 30-odd years later, with the acquisition of a digital projector (something that’s really lived up home entertainment for my wife and I), I decided to give “The Changeling” the long overdue big screen viewing it so richly deserved.

It did not disappoint…

“The Changeling.”

National Lampoon’s Tragic Vacation.
Family man John Russell (George C. Scott) with wife Joanna (Jean Marsh) and daughter Kathy (Michelle Martin).

Written by William Gray and Diana Maddox from a story by Russell Hunter, this Canadian-made horror film opens with music composer John Russell (George C. Scott), his wife Joanna (Jean Marsh) and young daughter Kathy (Michelle Martin) on a vacation in upstate New York, pushing their stalled station wagon off a slippery, snow-filled road. Finding a nearby phone booth (remember those?), John goes to call for a tow truck, as Joanna and Kathy frolic in the snow. Of course, this playful scene is utterly destroyed when a speeding truck careens around a bend and causes a fatal collision–plowing into the Russell’s car, killing mother and daughter in an instant, as a horrified John watches helplessly from the phone booth.

My own photo of the talented Jean Marsh, taken in Los Angeles back in 2014. Lovely, charming lady.
She broke my heart as the android Alicia in Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.”

Note: It’s a bit surprising that such a renowned actress like Jean Marsh (“Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Doctor Who,” “Return to Oz,” “Willow”) would take such a small, though pivotal role as Joanna, who is killed before we ever had a chance to know her as a character. Maybe there were additional scenes filmed for flashbacks that were cut, who knows? At any rate, there are other such talented actors with similarly smallish roles in the film (Bernard Behrens, Barry Morse, John Colicos), which goes to show the caliber of acting employed throughout the movie. I was lucky enough to have met the talented Jean Marsh back in 2014 at a convention in Los Angeles, and I’m pleased to report that she did indeed survive her harrowing ordeal in the station wagon…

Even a brightly colored child’s ball becomes a thing of muted sadness and eventual horror.

Some time later, we see John moving out of the family’s New York apartment, as Joanna and Kathy’s loss becomes too overwhelming for him to bear. As John packs to leave, his housekeeper accidentally drops one Kathy’s red and white ball from a box. John picks it up and studies it, as the housekeeper begins to apologize.

Desperately seeking to work through his grief, John accepts a faculty position as his university alma mater in Seattle, Washington, and finds a new home at a large, abandoned mansion leased to him at a bargain price from the Seattle Historical Preservation Society. John is met by former associates of his at the university, including old friend Robert (Bernard Behrens). On his first day of teaching, John is encouraged to see many new students attending–his talent and reputation clearly preceding him.

Note: The movie makes great use of real locations in New York City, Seattle and Vancouver more than adequately doubling for Seattle. The mansion of the movie is an elaborate (and enormous) facade, with some of its interiors shot on large indoor stages in Canada (considering the fate of the house in the movie, that makes sense–much easier to wreak havoc with it if it’s not someone’s real-life home). The story of “The Changeling” was inspired by writer Russell Hunter’s own alleged supernatural occurrences at the real-life Henry Treat Rogers Mansion in Denver, Colorado. As a natural skeptic, I don’t place much credence in the supernatural, even though I enjoy ghost stories on film for the same reasons I don’t need to be a Jedi Knight in order to enjoy “Star Wars.”

House enough for ya?

As John settles in to his ridiculously large new digs and meeting his real estate agent Claire Norman (Scott’s real-life wife, Trish Van Devere), he is quickly troubled by some odd disturbances. Kathy’s ball makes an unexpected appearance, doors open and close on their own, one of his piano’s keys plays by itself, and every morning at six am sharp, John hears a loud banging in the walls.

Later in the evening, he and Claire attend a performance of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, where he sees wealthy, powerful Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), a donor to the arts, campaign-stumping during the intermission.

The following morning, the estate’s groundskeeper, Mr. Tuttle (Chris Gampel), insists the loud bangs John hears are probably air pockets in the pipes (“an old house makes lots of noises”). The regularity of the banging in the walls prompts John to seek other answers to the house’s history at the Historical Society’s headquarters downtown…

Note: Sorry, but that loud banging in the walls would be a dealbreaker for me–even as a nonbeliever, that would be too unnerving to simply ignore. Reminds me of an old Eddie Murphy comedy sketch from 1983 where he asked, “Why don’t white people just get the f–k out of the house when it’s haunted?” As much as I love “The Changeling,” it could easily be one of the movies to which Murphy was referring.

John talks real estate with Claire Norman (Scott’s real-life wife Trish Van Devere) in downtown Vancouv–er, Seattle.

At the Society’s offices, John meets with Claire once again, as she tries to assure him that the house just needs a little TLC. Meanwhile, secretary Minnie (Ruth Springford) overhears their conversation and speaks to John while Claire is off to get some paperwork. She warns John that the house “isn’t fit to live in,” and that “it doesn’t want people.” Of course, such cryptic, dire warnings are–as they always are in horror movies–completely ignored. Claire, feeling a touch of guilt for leasing the spook-packed house to John, leafs through some old records. She tells John that the house was owned by a family in 1909 who suffered a tragedy when their daughter was run down in the street by a coal cart. While that bit of sadness seems to fit the bill for the house’s ‘hauntings,” it doesn’t quite jibe–there’s something else, more mysterious and elusive. John returns home later that evening, and that same red and white ball of Kathy’s bounces down the stairs by itself–almost as if to greet him. Between the loud banging in the walls and ghosts playing catch with his daughter’s ball, John decides he’s had enough of this s#!t…

Note: “The Changeling” isn’t the late George C. Scott’s only time playing the lead in a horror film; a decade later, he would play Detective Kinderman (taking over for actor Lee J. Cobb) in the deeply under-appreciated horror sequel, “Exorcist III” (1990), written and directed by original “The Exorcist” author William Peter Blatty (1928-2017), based on his 1983 novel “Legion,” which featured only a loose connection with “The Exorcist” in the form of Lt. Kinderman. Kinderman, with his razor-sharp instincts cleverly disguised beneath a chatty, deliberately bumbling facade, was said to be the unofficial inspiration for TV’s Detective Columbo (Peter Falk), or at least the late William Peter Blatty believed this to be the case.

John tosses Kathy’s ball off a bridge into Puget Sound…and it bounces back home (!).

Desperate to silence the supernatural shenanigans, as well as his own grief, John drives to a bridge overlooking Puget Sound and tosses the ball into the water. Returning home, his face turns ashen when he sees the same ball, now wet from water, rolling once again down the stairs. This ghost really needs to get John’s attention. Later, an attic window explodes from inside. Investigating the locked room from where the window shattered, John discovers a cobwebbed antique wheelchair, clearly designed for a child, along with a music box playing a melody which haunted him well before he found it.

With no logical explanations for any of these eerie happenings, John turns to his university’s parapsychologist (Barry Morse), who advices him to try a seance in order to reach the troubled ghost, and to learn what it seeks. The would-be ghostbuster recommends a husband and wife pair of mediums, Leah (Helen Burns) and Albert Harmon (Eric Christmas). Leah channels spirits through her automatic writings (like a human seismograph), while her husband dutifully reads her writings aloud. Along with Claire and her mother (Madeleine Sherwood), the mediums arrive at John’s house for the seance…

Note: Director Peter Medak and actor Barry Morse have a credit in common; both worked on the ITC series “Space: 1999”. Medak directed several episodes while Morse played Professor Victor Bergman in the series’ first season until he was unceremoniously replaced in Season 2 by Catherine Schell as the alien shapeshifter “Maya.” Medak, ironically, directed a 2nd season episode of the show titled “Seance Spectre” (1977) about a group of Alphans who hold seances to clarify their (false) visions of a habitable planet.

Note to self: tall, dangerous-looking metal cylinders are not welcome at creepy seances…

The Harmons request that John turn out the lights before they begin, while John asks if he can use his tape recorder to record the session. The Harmons agree. The seance begins. Entering a trance, Leah looks upward as her hands begin writing unconsciously–like the needle of a polygraph–while she begins to address the spirit occupying John’s home. She asks if the spirit is of the girl killed by the coal cart. The answer, written by Leah and spoken aloud by her husband, is NO. She asks the ghost’s name. JOSEPH. Leah asks the ghost whom it is trying to contact. JOHN. Leah presses, asking what happened to Joseph, and why he is not at peace. HELP! HELP! HELP! is the repeated response from the entity. The seance comes to an abrupt end as a glass flies off the table and shatters. Claire’s mother screams.

The following morning John plays back the tapes of the seance and actually hears a young boy’s voice, directly answering Leah’s questions just before she wrote them down. The words match. John learns that the frail, handicapped Joseph was murdered by his father–drowned in an upstairs bathtub. As Joseph struggled for his life, he repeatedly banged on the sides of the heavy iron tub–the same repetitive banging John hears every morning. Young Joseph’s prized medallion was then stolen from him by his father. Claire and John later visit the public library to view old microfilm records relating to the house; records that are curiously absent from the Historical Society’s official accounts. The two of them learn that the house once indeed belonged to the rich and powerful family of Senator Carmichael, and that his father, Richard Carmichael, owned yet another property closer to the water…

John gets permission to wake Joseph up from his 74 year dirt nap…

Acting on a hunch, John contacts the home’s current owner, Mrs. Grey (Frances Hyland) whose daughter Linda (Janne Mortil) has been having nightmares, and refuses to sleep in her own bedroom. Turns out that Linda’s bedroom is built over an old well on the property. With her daughter’s mental health in the balance, Mrs. Grey reluctantly gives permission for John and a contractor to dig beneath the floor of Linda’s temporarily abandoned bedroom. Soon, they discovery the abandoned well, half-filled with dirt. Probing deeper, John later finds a skeletal hand–the hand of young Joseph. Mrs. Grey calls the police, and the boy’s skeletal remains are taken away.

Returning to the well after the police leave, John begins digging once again–sifting through the dirt, looking for something more conclusive. Unseen by John, Joseph’s medallion somehow pushes its way up through the dirt, where its glint catches his eye. The medallion bears the inscription of Joseph Carmichael. John has found conclusive proof that the skeleton is indeed that of young Joseph Carmichael, meaning that the same-named senator is an imposter (the movie’s titular changeling). Piecing the puzzle together, John realizes that after Joseph’s murder, the boy’s body was buried in the well (along with the potentially incriminating medallion) at the Carmichael’s other property. Richard Carmichael was deeply disappointed with his biological son’s physical weakness, and stood to lose much of his wealth if he failed to produce a viable heir to his family fortune. After killing Joseph, Richard fled to Europe and adopted an orphan, whom he kept overseas until after World War 1, by which time the ‘boy’ was now an 18 year old man, and no one back home would recognize him.

Note: Simple tricks are used throughout the movie to simulate the supernatural. The medallion pushing its way through the dirt of the well was achieved by reversing a shot of the medal being pulled under the dirt by an invisible, off-camera thread. No expensive CGI, no animated energy bolts–nothing more clever than a reversing camera, but it still works.

Claire comes clean.

Acting on impulse, John tries to meet Senator Carmichael at the Seattle airport as he boards his private jet. John is pushed back by the senator’s security entourage, as he yells over the engine noise that he has the medallion of the real Joseph Carmichael. The visibly shaken senator ignores John’s ‘ravings’ and departs. Once airborne, Senator Carmichael makes a call to his friend, Seattle police Captain DeWitt (John Colicos), and asks if he could look into the matter for him. After returning home, John is met by the suspicious Capt. DeWitt, who assumes John is seeking to blackmail the senator. John angrily refutes the allegation and asks the captain to leave, just as Claire arrives. She and John confer about his poorly-planned, impulsive attempt to meet with the senator. Sometime after she leaves, a mirror in John’s house shatters. He then receives a call from Claire in a phone booth–she just saw DeWitt’s car overturned in an apparent accident on the road, the front window shattered (just like John’s mirror). Captain DeWitt is dead. Has the angry poltergeist of young Joseph Carmichael taken to murder to avenge his own death? When the senator learns of DeWitt’s ‘accident’, he finally decides to hear John out.

Note: Captain John DeWitt is played by the colorful character actor John Colicos (1928-2000), who famously played the very first Klingon character seen in TOS Star Trek, “Commander Kor,” in the 1967 episode, “Errand of Mercy” (a role he would later reprise on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ). He would later go on to play another iconic sci-fi role as the evil Baltar in 1978’s “Battlestar Galactica,” where his Judas-like character betrays his human heritage for personal power within the Cylon Empire.

Senator Carmichael accuses John of blackmail–until John gives him the medallion and the tapes, free of charge.

Arriving at the Senator’s palatial estate, John is escorted up to the senator’s office where the old man, like the late Capt. DeWitt, assumes John is out for a quick, tasty blackmail check. Disgusted by the senator’s cynical presumption, John turns over the medallion as well as the tape recording of the seance, saying that he’s done all he can do. John then tells the senator that his father was a ruthless, greedy murderer and that he is the beneficiary of that murder. The angry, tearful Senator Carmichael is left speechless as John leaves.

That wheelchair–even in previews, it scared the living S#!T out of me.

Claire, acting on impulse, returns to the house to look for John. She hears his voice in the house’s walls, but doesn’t realize it’s Joseph ‘replaying’ bits of John’s voice back to her. As she follows the sounds of John’s disembodied voice up the stairs to the attic, she is met by Joseph’s cobwebbed antique wheelchair–which turns to face her, before chasing her down the stairwell in the most pants-wettingly scary sequence of the entire film! This was the scene has fueled a nightmare or two of mine as a kid, and even today, the hairs on the back of my fiftysomething year-old head still stand up when I see it. After falling down the stairs in panic, she is met by the real John, and the two of them are about to leave when John decides to confront the unsettled poltergeist of young Joseph once more…

Note: The scene of the wheelchair chasing Claire down the stairs is this movie’s equivalent of Regan McNeill’s spinning head in “The Exorcist”–a horror showstopper. The effect of the wheelchair chase, like many other practical effects in the film, was achieved relatively simply, by mounting a camera on the seat of the wheelchair as it was pushed towards Trish Van Devere’s stunt double. Once again, simple and practically achieved, yet very effective. The trick of the camera chasing after its victims would also be famously used in the “Evil Dead” movies (1981-1992) and its spinoff TV-series, “Ash vs. the Evil Dead” (2016-2018).

John finds a good home is hard to hold onto…

Inside the house, John is met by gale-force winds, as the wrathful spirit of young Joseph lashes out in all directions. In the melee, John is knocked unconscious, as Claire is unable to force open the door to help him. A fire breaks out within the house, and it quickly (deliberately) spreads…

Note: At the climax of “Exorcist III”, George C. Scott was also hurled against walls and knocked to the ground by powerful psychic forces during the film’s final exorcism scene–a lengthy, expensive sequence that was done in reshoots after test audiences felt betrayed by an Exorcist movie with no actual exorcism in it!

Senator Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) suffers a fatal case of Imposter Syndrome…

Meanwhile, Senator Carmichael is still struggling to reconcile the fact that his father was a murderer who killed his biological son for profit–adopting him to take the dead boy’s place. Reaching into his desk, he pulls out a medallion matching the one given to the real Joseph Carmichael. Tossing his own copy aside, he gazes deeply into the late Joseph’s medallion–the desk in his office trembling with energy beneath him. Gazing deeper into the medal, Senator Carmichael now finds himself in two places at once–he remains in his office, while somehow climbing the burning stairs of his adoptive family’s estate…

Note: The movie touches on a wide variety of psychic phenomena; telekinesis, seances, automatic writing, and even matter teleportation (Kathy’s ball miraculously making its way back to the old house after being tossed off the bridge). Now, in the movie’s final act, Senator Carmichael is astral-projected back into the old house of his false birthright. While I’m not a particular believer in psychic phenomena, I’m more than willing to suspend my disbelief in the service of a good horror movie–especially during Halloween season, my favorite time of the year.

An astrally-projected Senator Carmichael finally ‘sees’ the room where it happened…

As John regains consciousness, he sees Senator Carmichael’s image ascending the burning staircase, which collapses behind him after reaching the upper floor. Meanwhile, in his office, the body of Senator Carmichael suffers a fatal heart attack as the real Joseph Carmichael finally exacts revenge upon his changeling, 74 years after his murder. With the entire house now in flames, Claire and John rush back to the senator’s estate, just as the dead imposter is taken away in a body bag. With nothing more to do, John and Claire realize their mission is over and a long-standing injustice is finally resolved–however brutally.

The antique wheelchair and music box–the burned ruins of a murdered young boy’s wrath.

The next morning, we see the smoking ruins of the house, including the burnt wreckage of the wheelchair and young Joseph’s antique music box–which begins playing its haunting melody once again…

The End.

Summing It Up.

Watching the movie on a 7 ft. screen in the dark in my home office from an upscaled DVD, I still felt the nerve juice making my spine tingle at key moments, such as the ball dropping down the staircase, the seance, and especially when that goddamn terrifying wheelchair springs to life and chases an understandably scared-out-of-her-mind Trish Van Devere down the stairs. Kudos to director Peter Medak for his effective choices in shadow, lighting, tone, and in fully exploiting the late 1970s-vibe of locations in Seattle, Vancouver and New York City. Medak also lets us see a different side of the usually sterner George C. Scott (whom I could watch, fully-riveted, if he were to recite the ingredients on a packet of hot sauce). And to her credit, Trish Van Devere delivers white-hot fear like no one’s business.

Watching it sourced from an upscaled DVD on a 7 ft. screen in the dark, the movie still works wonders on my nerves.

If there were any deficits to this excellent haunted house film, I would say that the deliberately slower pacing might turn off less-patient viewers–even if I don’t share this opinion myself. Other viewers might be turned off by the movie’s WASP-ish casting, which is understandable, though not something done consciously, I imagine (even “JAWS” and “Star Wars” had this issue–they were simply the products of a less-aware time, I’m afraid). These potential nitpicks aside, director Peter Medak clearly knows how to construct a good haunted house story; with great actors, some solid mood-building, and an appropriate payoff. The movie isn’t a full-blown horror symphony like “The Exorcist”, but more like a classical piano recital–a finely tuned instrument that hits just the right keys. Subtle, but hair-raisingly spooky, “The Changeling” makes for fine Halloween season viewing.

Where To Watch.

Currently, “The Changeling” (1980) is available to stream on Tubi (free, with ads), Shudder, and on AMC+. The movie can also be purchased on DVD/BluRay from Amazon.com (prices vary). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are now over 700,000 as of this writing (with over 4.5 million deaths worldwide), so please continue to wear masks in public, and get vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent further infections. 

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

Imgages: Pan-Canadian Film Distributors, Chessman Park Productions, HBO Home Video.

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