The Changeling begins with an idyllic family having car trouble on a wintry road as tragedy strikes without warning. Noted composer John Russell (George C. Scott) will witness an out of control truck take away his wife and daughter. A few months later, still deep in grief over his loss, John decides to take a teaching job at a Seattle college. He buys a lease to one of the city's oldest houses, one with a dark history with deep connections to a prominent family. Once moved in John hears strange noises and discovers a secret room.
Scott's mastery of playing a man in deep grief trying to hold himself together separates The Changeling from other haunted house movies. The weight of the world is on his face. When forced to deal with a supernatural mystery he's put in an even more complicated existential dilemma. He forms a friendship with his real estate agent Claire, played his then wife Trish Van Devere, as they investigate the mystery of the house. Melvyn Douglas,in one of his final roles, plays a Senator who knows the history of the house.
There are a few early scenes of Scott composing music on a piano, suggesting a connection between the act of creating and channeling mysterious forces. Whatever it is that drives a musician to compose, a dancer to dance, a writer to project their visions on paper, one wonders if the act of creation can put one in tune with otherworldly forces. The first sense of the supernatural comes from a piano key, music appears to be a bridge between the living and the dead. And that is true in a literal and figurative sense. Buried in the darkness of The Changeling are such compelling concepts.
Peter Medak's direction turns the house into a living organism with circular tracking shots and POV shots utilized at pivotal moments. John Coquillon's cinematography, a regular on Sam Peckinpah films, builds a tension that sustains Medak's methodical direction. A great example is a seance scene, the moment in a haunted house movie that can cause unintentional laughter, but here it's handled with an adroit creepiness as the psychics and mediums make contact, including some automatic writing. Making it creepier, the script makes us listen to the entire experience again on tape as he looks for hidden messages (echoes of The Exorcist.)
The final act moves into political thriller territory, with John on the trail of the Senator. A thread is made with American greed and the lengths people will go to hold onto it, Faulkner's idea that the past isn't even past comes to mind. Douglas is creepy as the Senator with multiple levels of power at his control, a walking skeleton of lies and crimes.
As a study of grief and loneliness, The Changeling proves how the horror genre can be more than jump scares and cheap thrills. A mature movie with thoughtful characters at the center of it, all meeting head on with the inevitability of mortality and the relative notion of time.