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.
Just over a year 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 months 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.