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Film / The Changeling

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Did you die in this house?

The Changeling is a 1980 Canadian horror film directed by Peter Medak, starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas. It has been described as one of the scariest films of all times by Martin Scorsese, and was a direct inspiration for The Others (2001).

After losing his wife and daughter in a freak car accident, well-known composer John Russell (Scott) moves into the Chessman House in Seattle to rebuild his life. There, he experiences several supernatural events, prompting him to research the history of the place. With the help of his friend, Claire Norman (Van Devere), he uncovers a horrific crime that was committed in the house years ago. The beneficiary of that crime is still alive and prosperous. However, the long-dead victim won't let them rest until justice is meted out.

Despite the relatively stereotypical plot, the film is memorable due to its off-beat tone, the performance of its leads, and some genuinely disturbing moments.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Asshole Victim: Captain DeWitt acts more as an enforcer for Senator Carmichael and has the gall to blackmail John that he will get him falsely locked up in an asylum if he doesn't give him what he wants and even uses his wife's and daughter's deaths to justify his supposed eroding sanity. Needless to say it is NOT hard to watch (only scarily surprising) getting what's coming to him.
  • Badass Normal: John remains calm and collected in situations that make the audience hide behind the couch in fear.
  • Big "NO!": Senator Carmichael gives an anguished one in response to John's revelations about his father.
    John: You're not Joseph Carmichael! You're the beneficiary of the cruelest kind of murder: murder for profit!
    Carmichael: NO! My father was not a murderer!
  • Broken Pedestal: The Senator can't think of his foster father the same way again, ever.
  • The Cameo: Barry Morse shows up for one scene as a parapsychologist.
  • Cobweb Jungle: The hidden room in the attic.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: It's implied that the deaths of his wife and daughter have numbed John to the point he can be stoical in the face of Nightmare Fuel.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Averted. Mr Tuttle's actually quite obliging.
  • Damsel in Distress: For a short while, Claire when she's being chased by the wheelchair.
  • Deadly Bath: Poor Joseph.
  • Death by Childbirth: Joseph's mother died giving birth to him, and since their wealth came from her side of the family, Joseph technically inherited it, with his father simply being in charge of it until Joseph reached 21.
  • Death of a Child: Kathy, Cora and Joseph had their lives tragically cut short.
  • Dirty Cop: Captain DeWitt.
  • The Dragon: Captain DeWitt is one for Senator Carmichael.
  • Dull Surprise: John's reaction to the medal revealing itself. Justified, as by then, he has seen it all.
  • Emotional Fainting: John after witnessing Joseph's murder.
  • Fascinating Eyebrow: During the seance scene, John tries not to look cynical but fails to dissimulate his skeptical expression.
  • First-Name Basis: Off-screen, some time during the horse-ride, John and Claire drop the prefixes and surnames.
  • Genre Savvy: It doesnít take John that long to realize that something is wrong with the house, and an even shorter period for him to realize itís a Haunted House.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: John Russell's a Nice Guy and a distinguished composer.
  • Girl Next Door: Claire Norman.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Sen. Carmichael when he is "brought" to the house via paranormal phenomenon and made to witness the murder of the real Joseph Carmichael, immediately followed by a Hollywood Heart Attack
  • Good Is Not Soft: Russell.
  • Haunted House: Joseph doesn't just haunt the manor he was murdered in, but also the plot of land his body was buried under... which unfortunately has had a house built upon it since then.
  • Inheritance Murder: Joseph was born a very sickly child, who's sickness left him stuck in a wheelchair, and was unlikely to reach adulthood. Because the family wealth would have gone to charity if Joseph died before inheriting it at 21, his father murdered him and adopted a healthy orphan to take his place so he wouldn't lose the fortune.
  • Just Friends: Implied with John and Claire.
  • Karma Houdini: Richard Carmichael is long dead by the time the movie takes place, meaning there is no way to bring Joseph's murderer to justice.
  • Maybe Ever After: The ending implies that Claire will stand by John and help him recover from what has been his second ordeal in less than six months.
  • Mirror Scare: Captain DeWitt doesn't get very far after threatening to institutionalise John.
  • Mood Whiplash: At least twice.
    • The opening scene begins with John, Joanna and Kathy laughing about being stuck in the snow, and quickly turns into the worst embodiment of parental fear when Joanna and Kathy are run over by a car, as John is forced to watch helplessly from a telephone booth.
    • Another scene opens as a tearjerker, with John grieving over Kathy's death, but unexpectedly turns into nightmare fuel as loud, banging noises fill the whole house and interrupt John in his grief.
    • After the aforementioned Mirror Scare with Captain DeWitt... the phone immediately rings.
  • Motif: The red-and-white striped ball represents Russell's inability to get over Kathy's death until it becomes an independent source of horror.
  • Nerves of Steel: Russell/G.C. Scott's portrayal of him. What kind of man decides to dig up evidence deep down a haunted well all by himself, in the middle of the night? That too, after the remains of a dead child were found in the same spot just a few hours ago.
  • Not So Stoic:
    • A poignant example when Russell cries in bed, thinking of his daughter.
    • Another memorable moment: "You goddamn son of a bitch... What is it you want? What do you WANT FROM ME!?"
  • Non-Malicious Monster: The ghost turns out to not be evil at all, as he's just an innocent kid who was murdered, and mainly is just reaching out for help.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Joseph only appears in apparitions and images, never directly. The physical hauntings resemble poltergeist activity.
  • Offing the Offspring: Joseph's father murdered him and replaced him with a healthier "changeling" to prevent his inheritance from going to charity in case Joseph died early.
  • Ominous Music Box Tune: The musicbox found in the hidden room.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: After witnessing the death of your only child, you have to re-live the murder of another child, whose spirit won't let you rest until you help him.
  • Red Herring: Cora.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Senator Joseph Carmichael was actually an orphan adopted by Richard Carmichael for the sole purpose of replacing his son, the real Joseph, who Richard had murdered to keep control of his inheritance. The fake Joseph grew up in Switzerland in the years prior to WW1 and the Great War itself, with his adoptive father claiming that "experimental European treatments" had fixed his various health issues when they returned to America.
  • Spooky Sťance: Unconventional, with the non-hammy psychic using automatic writing to communicate with Joseph. It leads to the protagonists uncovering who's actually haunting the Chessman House, and why.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Both John and the audience find it hard not to feel sorry for the Senator once we know his role in the story.
  • Unfinished Business: Joseph won't rest until the beneficiary of his murder is punished.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Joseph at the end, perhaps.
  • The Usurper: Deconstructed with Senator Joseph Carmichael - he had little choice in matter at the time.