I remember seeing commercials when this movie came out in 1980. The featured image was of an empty wheelchair chasing someone down through a house, which my friends and I thought very funny and not at all scary.
This is a pity, since The Changeling is for the most part an effective, classic ghost story with a touch of post-Watergate conspiracy thrown in.
The movie starts with a happy family. A husband and wife (George C. Scott and Jean Marsh, who once played that less-happy couple, Edward Fairfax Rochester and Bertha Mason) and their little girl are pushing a paneled station wagon up a snowy country road in upstate New York. In spite of the car’s breakdown in the middle of nowhere, everyone is laughing and joking.
When they reach a turn-off with one of those large wooden signs indicating the entrance to a State Park, the husband crosses the road to a phone booth on the other side to call for assistance. The wife and daughter engage in a playful snowball fight between the car and the sign.
Another car comes up the snow-covered road in one direction. A big truck appears in the other. The second car skids, and the truck swerves to avoid it–and crashes into the station wagon, propelling it into the sign.
The husband in the phone booth can only look on, horrified and helpless as the people most dear to him are killed.
Four months later, the man, whose name is John Russell, packs up everything in the apartment where he and his family used to live, and moves to Seattle. There, he tells his welcoming friends how long it took before he could believe that his wife and child were gone, and then he couldn’t stop saying “They’re gone” for several weeks more. It’s a heartbreaking but entirely convincing portrayal of overwhelming grief after a tragedy. The conversation also establishes that Russell is a well-known composer and an alumnus of the Seattle university where he’s accepted a position to teach advanced music theory.
His friends invite him to stay with them for as long as he likes, but Russell looks at their daughters, the elder of whom resembles his own recently deceased little girl, and gracefully declines. He says that he’d like to rent or buy a house for himself where he can work on his music. They suggest that he contact a friend of theirs at the local historical society.
Russell does so, and a woman from the historical society named Claire Norman (Trish van der Vere, who was married to Scott in real life) shows him a beautiful but neglected late-Victorian home called the Chessman House. No one has lived there in 12 years, but Claire thinks that it’s just the place for John Russell; there’s a music room with a piano.
The terms must’ve been be agreeable, since we cut from this question to a cleaning lady polishing the dining-room table, a handyman putting books on the study shelves, and John Russell playing his new piano.
Well, old piano. One of the keys sticks. But when he’s called away for a few minutes to deal with some business involving the house’s restoration to a habitable condition, the key depresses by itself, and an ominous, vibrating tone emanates from the piano.
This is the first indication that the house is haunted. The next is equally subtle. While John is at his piano again, the door behind him swings open and he thinks he hears a muted voice in the next room. No one’s there. When the handyman comes in shortly afterward, he says that no one else is at the house; it’s the cleaning lady’s day off. John resumes work on the piece he’s composing and records it on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Claire drops by while he’s working, bringing some photos and other items related to Chessman House. Since she’s dressed in riding togs, she invites him to go horseback riding with her. It’s not exactly a date–it’s still too soon for John to think of romance. He’s reminded of how Kathy, his daughter, loved horses and he weeps the following night.
The next ghostly manifestation isn’t so easy to ignore. At 6 a.m. two mornings in a row, a loud metallic, rhythmic banging echoes through the whole house. It goes on for about half a minute, then stops.
This being an old house, most reasonable people might at first attribute the noise to an antique furnace or plumbing. John does have the handyman look at the pipes, but he isn’t entirely convinced by the rational explanation.
Then, one rainy night after John sees off a string quartet of his students who have come to practice at his house, he hears the sound of running water and what sounds like a child laughing or gurgling. He traces the sound to the kitchen sink. The tap is on and he turns it off. Then he hears running water somewhere upstairs; it shuts itself off, then starts again. This time, he follows the sound up to the third floor, a part of the house he hasn’t used. It appears to be old servants’ quarters and storage. But at one end of the long, spookily lit hallway is a bathroom with old-fashioned plumbing fixtures. The bathtub faucet is on and the tub half-full of water.
As he turns this off, he sees a sudden flash of a child’s face floating just below the water’s surface.
John doesn’t run out of the room, but backs away, slowly and somewhat shakily, out into the hall.
He doesn’t leave the house, but he is now very curious about its history.
When he goes to the historical society to ask if there have been similar incidents in Chessman House before, an older lady who’s worked there for years says that the house doesn’t want people in it. It wants to be left alone. She also tells John that there are problems with his lease, that Claire pushed it through without going through the proper channels. It’s obvious she doesn’t think he should be living there, even if the place weren’t haunted.
The next morning, as he’s leaving the house, a window bursts and scatters several small pieces of red glass on the walkway around him. He looks up to see where the glass came from, but all the windows in the three stories of the façade are made of clear glass. There is a tower at either end of the building, however, and by stepping back a little John can observe that the single window in each has a fan made of wedge-shaped panes of colored glass. One pane is broken.
John heads back into the house and up to the third floor. Next to the old-fashioned bathroom at the end of the hall is another door. At first glance, it appears to be only a closet–then John notices that there’s a boarded-up door behind the shelves at the back. Both the shelves and the boards are old and flimsy, and it takes only a couple minutes of work for him to remove them with his bare hands.
The door behind the boards is padlocked. As John bashes on this lock with a hammer, that metallic banging starts up again, so loud that he has to stop briefly and cover his ears. But the moment the padlock breaks, the banging stops. The door swings invitingly open…
Behind it are cobweb-blocked stairs leading up to the tower room, where there is a sadly small wheelchair, a desk and a child’s workbook with the initials CSB and the date of January 1909 on the cover, tiny tin soldiers on the dust-covered mantelpiece, and a music box. The music box plays exactly the same melody that John thought he had composed a few days earlier.
When he plays both the music box and his tape for Claire, she says it’s a coincidence. The tune must have once been popular–as music-box songs usually are–and he probably heard it and forgot it a long time ago. Again, John isn’t convinced. He shows Claire the tower room and the child’s notebook, and they both wonder about the little wheelchair and who could have occupied it and this room.
John disagrees with the idea that the house wants to be left alone. He thinks that everything that’s happened to him indicates that, whatever is there, it’s trying desperately to communicate.
They go to the historical society to dig through the records and find out who lived in Chessman House at the time that notebook was written. The records Claire can find only go back to 1920. The older lady informs them that it was owned in 1909 by a Dr. Bernard, who sold the house suddenly after a family tragedy.
Claire and John next visit a library and go through the microfilm of Seattle newspapers for the early months of 1909. A couple of brief articles give them the information they want: Cora Bernard was struck by a coal-cart in front of her Chessman Park home when she ran out into the street, and died a few days later of her injuries.
This leads to a visit to the Bernard family graves in the cemetery. John believes that his grief for his own daughter has put him in touch with the ghost of this other little girl who died in a similar way, but he can’t go through that kind of emotional turmoil again.
He’s looking through a family album that evening, when a red-and-white striped rubber ball that belonged to Kathy comes bouncing down the front staircase. It’s John’s desire to rejects this attempt at contact that leads him to over-react: he drives out to a bridge over (I think) Lake Washington and throws the ball in.
By the time he gets back to the house, the ball is back too, bouncing down the stairs again, dripping wet.
What can one do after that but hold a séance to find out what the ghost-child wants?
I love a séance scene, and this one is nicely atmospheric. The medium uses automatic writing, scribbling on big sheets of paper while tonelessly asking questions and occasionally forming words in answer. Her husband / assistant reads the answers aloud and provides fresh sheets of paper as needed.
John records the whole session on his reel-to-reel recorder. Also in attendance are Claire and her mother, who works at the historical society too and seemed aware that the house had a reputation before John knew anything about it.
The reply is No.*
“What is your name?”
In answer to subsequent questions, the medium writes John, then Help, Help, Help, Help in increasingly sprawling and frantic letters until she tears and scatters the last sheets of paper.
While this is going on in the dining room, the door to the tower room upstairs creaks opens.
As the séance resumes, a camera point of view creeps slowly down the front staircase and moves across the entry hall to the open dining-room door as if someone were approaching.
Instead of paper, the medium is now using a technique I’ve never seen before, using a tall metallic cone like a dunce cap. This sits at the center of the table and rattles in response to the medium’s questions, until eventually a glass flies from the table and shatters.
After his guests have gone and he’s cleaned the broken glass up, John listens to his tape recording of the séance. The séance itself was good, but this is for me the eeriest moment in the movie. On the tape, John hears a child’s voice whispering the answers to the medium’s questions–No, and Joseph–before the assistant reads out the written words. The child’s voice answers other questions that were not written down.
We see the scene as Joseph’s voice tells us about it. John sees it too in a trance vision. Joseph’s father drowned him in a tin bathtub up in that tower room. The music box was playing, and that loud thumping sound is the little boy’s fist banging against the side of the tub until he stops struggling.
When the vision ends, John finds that he’s done some automatic writing of his own in a more clear and stylized fashion than the medium’s scribbles. He’s written the words, medal, ranch, well, Sacred Heart, and the little boy’s full name, Joseph Carmichael.
Joseph Carmichael is a name already known to John Russell. It’s the name of an elderly senator (played by Melvyn Douglas), whom we’ve seen giving a speech at a symphony fundraiser event John and his friends and Claire and her mom attended early on. He’s been mentioned a few times in the background as the head of the Spencer-Carmichael Foundation, which is based on his family fortune and donates and/or manages a lot of charitable works in and around Seattle… including the historical society.
Is the senator really Joseph Carmichael after all?
John looks as if he’s going to be sick after his vision, but he manages to pull himself together long enough to go across the front hall to the study, phone Claire, and get out a few barely coherent words asking her to please come over, before he faints on the floor.
When she joins John in the study, they discuss what they’ve heard. Claire says that Sacred Heart was the name of an orphanage in the city that closed down years ago. John guesses that the senator was adopted from there as a small child after the father murdered his own son.
This is too horrible for Claire to think about. She’s half-hysterical as she heads out into the hall–then stops abruptly as if she were slapped. She stares up at the stairs. When John goes out to her, he sees what she sees: that little cobweb-covered wheelchair is sitting on the second-floor landing above them.
More research is needed to find the motive behind this murder and the need for a replacement–or changeling–child. Claire and John find the answers in the history of Chessman House, Senator Carmichael’s biography, and his grandfather Spencer’s will.
The Carmichael family lived at Chessman House until 1906; Joseph Carmichael was born there in 1900 and his mother died at his birth. Her father, who died in 1905, was a multimillionaire who didn’t much like his son-in-law, so his will left everything to the little boy. The father would only be a guardian and trustee until Joseph turned 21. If Joseph died before his 21st birthday, then the Spencer fortune would go to charity and Dad would get nothing. But poor little Joseph was a sickly child suffering from arthritis and, John speculates, rather than take a chance on the boy’s health, the father drowned him and arranged this substitution. Father and adopted son then went immediately to Switzerland where the boy was supposedly receiving treatment. They didn’t return to the United States until after the end of World War I, when the second Joseph was a strapping lad of 18. Who would be able to say that he wasn’t the same boy?
As for the murdered child, his body was hidden down a well. John’s next piece of research is to go through old city surveys and property maps to find where that well was. The word ranch is his single clue.
At the turn of the century, there was a Spencer Ranch along the Puget Sound, part of Joseph’s inheritance. A well is marked on the oldest maps. Pieces of the land were sold off by the 1920s and houses built on them; the well disappeared, but John makes note of the house that was built over it and, after learning that it now belongs to a woman named Mrs. Grey, pays a call on her with Claire.
Mrs. Grey says that she wouldn’t have listened to their ghost story, except that three nights ago–the night of the séance–her little girl had a nightmare about a small and gnome-like boy trying to climb up through the floor of her bedroom. The child hasn’t gone into the room since then and is sleeping in her mother’s bedroom. Mrs. Grey understands that these people want to tear up the floor of her daughter’s room and start digging, but she wants some time to think about it.
Later that night, the little Grey girl gets out of bed and walks down the hall to her former room. She stares at the floor, while we hears the sounds of creaking wood and lapping water. A glowing blue light plays over her face. Then we see what she sees–a drowned boy floating under water–and she screams.
Cut to a chainsaw cutting through the floorboards the next morning. John and Mrs. Grey’s teenaged son Tony dig underneath until they find the well–which doesn’t seem to have been covered over or filled in at all; the basementless house is built right over it.
The police carry off all the bones of the child’s body discovered in a plastic bag, but they find John less than helpful in explaining why he was digging up the well or who he thinks the child might be. He hasn’t found Joseph’s christening medal, which the boy was wearing when he died, and which have his full name and date of birth on it. Without that, there’s no proof that any part of this story is true.
Later that night after the police and the Grey family have gone, John returns to the house and resumes digging. He doesn’t have to do much, since Joseph lends a ghostly hand. A golden chain with a medallion on it snakes up out of the dirt when John isn’t looking, but he sees it the moment he turns his head.
What does John do with this proof? He declares that he’s going to talk to Senator Carmichael, and then tries to do so in an idiotic way. Even in 1980, it was a bad idea to burst through security staff at the airport while a government official is boarding his private plane and start shouting “I have to talk to you!” John waves the medal and yells something about the house, but this does nothing to convince the people around the senator that he’s not a nut. I’m astonished he isn’t arrested.
But Senator Carmichael understands better than anybody else what John’s yelling about; he’s been kept apprised of what’s going on at Chessman House from that lady at the historical society.
His response is to call on a pet police captain (John Colicos, who’s played a Klingon more than once, so you know he can be nasty) to go over to Chessman House to try and bully John into silence by questioning his mental state and accuses him of blackmail.
This doesn’t turn out as either the senator or police captain planned, and we see the range of Joseph’s power.
After the police captain’s bizarre automobile accident, the senator does agree to see John at his home, which it turns out to be quite close to Chessman House–and this is where the film stops being good and spooky for me.
It’s not the confrontation between George C. Scott and Melvyn Douglas that fails. The former wants to know how much the senator knows about that other Joseph Carmichael, and wants him to acknowledge that he gained his vast fortune under false pretenses. The latter tearfully insists that it’s all lies–his father was a great man.
To be fair, I don’t believe the senator did know about the murder; he was only 6 years old at the time and his new daddy would probably have told him that the other boy had died and all he had to do to be very, very rich was keep his mouth shut. The conspiracy is to keep the substitution secret, and who knows how much the historical society lady and the police captain actually know?
Senator Carmichael falls back on the blackmail accusation, and in response John hands over all his evidence, including the séance tape and the baptism medal.
The medal ends up dangling over a portrait of the elder, child-murdering Mr. Carmichael that sits on the senator’s desk… and when all three start rattling violently after John departs, the senator finally sees the horrible truth for himself.
No, what’s disappointing is that the filmmakers must have thought that Joseph wasn’t menacing enough and close out the story by having him do things that don’t make any sense.
While John is talking to the senator, Claire goes over to Chessman House, and we get that wheelchair chase scene that I found so ridiculous even as a teenager and don’t think any better of now. Why should Joseph chase Claire? She’s been trying to help him from the moment she was aware he existed.
But that’s nothing to the way the ungrateful little ghost-boy repays John while he gets revenge on the changeling-child who took his place in life.
Well, it’s a good movie until it isn’t anymore, and I give it full points for what it does accomplish as far as spooky atmosphere and subtle scares and the clues John and Claire use to put the mystery together. George C. Scott gives us a poignant performance. Everything we see about John Russell’s life, his grief, his music, even the tiny bit about his teaching is interesting. I would watch a movie about this man even if he hadn’t moved into a haunted house.
I like that the romance between John and Claire is never fully developed. After building such a careful portrait of a man who’s just beginning to feel again after a terrible tragedy and is taking the first steps to put his life together, it would be an emotionally false note to send him straight into a love story on top of the ghost story. You can see they like each other and, after the bond they’ve built during this macabre experience, will probably get together when they’re ready for it.
Let’s leave it at that, and leave them sitting outside the senator’s house as the ambulance drives away… past the entrance to Chessman House as it goes up in flames. That’s Joseph saying Thanks, John, for all your help!
*This is the last time we hear about the little girl Cora. Since she isn’t the ghost, but she did have a connection with that tower room, I have to fill in an explanation for what happened to her that the movie omits. She lived in the house a few years after Joseph died and made it her own playroom/workroom, which is why her notebook was up there on the desk. Did Joseph do something to frighten her so badly that she ran out into the street without looking? Her family must have felt there was something wrong in that room, and boarded up and padlocked the door before they moved out; Carmichael didn’t seal the room off, otherwise Cora would never have been able to go up there.