Girl Meets Context: This October is going to be dedicated to classic haunted house movies. Next up, the Canadian chiller from Peter Medak that is considered one of the best haunted house movies of the 1980s. Composer John Russell (George C. Scott) loses his wife and daughter in an unexpected accident. After a prolonged period of grieving, he decides to begin working on his music again, renting a remote Victorian mansion in which he can finish working on a difficult piece. But Russell soon realizes that the house is plagued by the angry ghost of a murdered boy. Together with his friend Claire (Scott’s real-life wife Trish Van Devere), Russell attempts to solve the mystery of the boy’s death (which includes holding a séance that’s one of the movie’s most famous and effective sequences). Soon the trail of clues leads to a powerful Republican Senator named John Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) and Russell realizes that he’s stumbled upon a decades-old conspiracy. The Changeling is famous for its classic approach the ghost story, wringing tension out of simple props, (including an old wheelchair, a hidden room and a mysterious bouncing ball). The film is supposedly based on the “real” experiences of writer/composer Russell Hunter. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie. If you haven’t seen The Changeling, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: I just want you to know that I am discussing this movie with you from my workplace after hours, in a huge, terrifying warehouse, while a raging thunderstorm goes on outside. The windows are literally shaking.
Sean: I love that.
Kristine: I am a crazy person for doing this! This truly is the creepiest place on earth after dark.
Sean: Scary, scary, quite contrary… The madman tore Kristine’s throat out and buried her in the prairie…
Kristine: Umm, you’re a monster (I know you think you’re “being fun”). Are you jealous of my terrifying surroundings?
Sean: I am super jealous.
Sean: Can I talk about this director’s bizarrely homosexual filmography?
Kristine: I also looked up Peter Medak. It’s funny that we both did because usually I don’t do research on the movies we watch. His filmography is a motley bunch of insanity. An episode of Breaking Bad AND 7th Heaven? I am totally fascinated! What is his story?
Sean: I don’t know his story, but here are his movies: Zorro, the GAY Blade (starring… George Hamilton? And the tagline is “Zexy, Zany, Zensational!”). A movie called Let Him HAVE IT. A movie called A Day in the Death of JOE EGG (So disgusting). Something called By the PRICKING of My THUMBS (I can’t even). Something called The Odd JOB.
Kristine: OMFG! I am dying. The BLOW Job?
Sean: I mean, when I read this list of films, I feel so confused and upset. “Zensational”?
Kristine: Hee hee hee! Medak is Jewish, right?
Sean: I have no idea about him at all. Never even heard of him. But clearly he is a perverted freak.
Kristine: I think he’s Jewish, which is important (we’ll get to why in a minute).
Sean: Oh, also a version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Mandy Patinkin! Hahahahah!
Kristine: Oh my god. That actually makes sense because Mandy is a Broadway song and dance man, right? I think the Hunch sings. He also directed an episode of fucking Carnivàle? And The Wire?
Sean: Do you think Medak invented George C. Scott’s hairstyle in The Changeling on his own? Was it his “vision”?
Kristine: I love that you mention his hair because it was so distracting to me. At first I thought it was because I can only think of Scott with the classic Patton flattop/Dr. Strangelove military cut. He looked so weird to me with the floppy “liberal man” hair! But as the movie progressed I realized that it wasn’t just the incongruity, but that the hair is truly a force of it’s own. How do you feel about Scott in general?
Sean: I don’t really get him. I was reading a bunch of fan reviews of this movie and they were like, “I could watch GCS read the phone book…” and I am like, “No.” I have nothing against him, but I don’t get him at all. I do kind of dig him as a pompous fuddyduddy. Also, he is Campbell Scott’s dad? Weird. Remember, Singles? Yeah, me neither.
Kristine: And did you know that Melvyn Douglas (Senator Carmichael/the changeling) is Illeana Douglas’ granddad?
Sean: Weird to all of it.
Kristine: Do you think there exists in the world one person who says Campbell Scott is their favorite actor? Could that exist?
Sean: Rewatching The Changeling was, overall, highly entertaining and enjoyable for me because it has some legitimate 1970s batshitness to it. It’s a weird little movie. What did you think of it? Was it a step up from The Amityville No-Horror and The Devil’s Borebone?
Kristine: This movie gets a mixed rating from me. A lot of it was ridiculous, but I was genuinely scared and upset a couple of times. Overall, I think it’s a mess with some good parts. It spends way too much time on John Russell (George C. Scott) being a RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority] and not enough on exploring the idea that maybe he is going nuts because of his grief. I think the movie ultimately overemphasizes the importance of the actual crime/scandal surrounding Joseph’s murder rather than the more interesting, interior space of Russell’s grief. The movie switches from being something domestic and psychological to this big conspiracy thriller, where suddenly all of these other people are complicit, like the old lady from the Historical Society. Do you agree? Also, the character of Claire was a total throwaway and I hated her. What young, single woman spends all her time volunteering for the local Historical Society? I was talking with my boyfriend about how ridiculous it was that she was throwing hardcore fuck-me eyes at Russell, and then I found out that the actress was married to George C. Scott in real life!
Sean: I was wondering if they gave Claire that hellish bouffant (that aged her seven decades) so that the mere thought of Claire and Russell together wasn’t so nauseating.
Kristine: Sean, remember when she says, “Do you ride?” and it is revolting?
Sean: Oh god, all the elite class stuff in the movie was insane. It was literally Gossip Girl: Old Fuddyduddy Edition.
Kristine: Hee hee.
Sean: I thought the Claire role was shit, but girlfriend gave good hysteria when she got chased by the evil wheelchair, which I found delightful and ridiculous.
Kristine: I loved the evil wheelchair, a lot. I just have to say that the purported message of the movie is that it is not nice to murder a sad, crippled child or lock the disabled away from the world… And yet it is totally responsible for making people terrified of the handicapped! Little Joseph is supposed to be the innocent victim in the plot, yet the movie presents him as the ultimate symbol of horror, with his scary wheelchair and his lispy whispering and his ghostly floating in ghost water (and I realized the The Devil’s Backbone’s Santi is a total reference to this movie). But both movies (this and the del Toro) really did not do it for me because the ghosts (Joseph and Santi) are not really menacing at all (except to the bouffant-ed). Especially in The Changeling. I never felt scared for John Russell, maybe because he was such a RIMA, discovering a murder, calling the police, handing over the evidence to the Senator… I mean, where was the danger? It was weird.
Sean: But you said parts of the movie upset you?
Kristine: I would be rolling my eyes at the OTT-ness of it all and then suddenly I would be scared/upset and then I would be back to eye rolling.
Sean: What upset you?
Kristine: I actually found the murder scene to be really horrible. I kind of couldn’t believe it. The Changeling felt very TV-movie-of-the-week and then suddenly Joseph’s murder happened and I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ Also, I must admit that the wheelchair scared me a few times.
Sean: Well, we’ve talked a bit about ghost/haunted house movies often being maternal melodramas (Poltergeist, The Others, The Orphanage, The Innocents) but all the movies this month have been about men/daddies. Which is entirely coincidental, by the way, and not something that I planned.
Kristine: They really have been!
Sean: But with The Changeling in particular, I was sort of into the grief-stricken daddy stuff, even though it grossed me out.
Kristine: Yeah, when Russell is sobbing in bed? I thought that was actually intense and real and good.
Sean: But I agree that the male melodrama aspects of the early part of the movie get drowned out by the Law & Order/Cold Case plot of the second half.
Kristine: Senator Carmichael is such a Law & Order character! Good call.
Sean: Remember at the very beginning when Russell is explaining all his breakdowns to his rich friends and he’s like, ““Now I have to start making demands of myself”? I thought that was such a 1970s self-actualization thing to say. I thought the whole idea of this gruff old geezer getting in touch with his feelings was very 1970s post-therapy culture. I mean, that’s the role of the supernatural plot in the movie – to give him a “problem” to fix involving a dead child because he can’t fix the real problem, which is that his wife and daughter are dead forever.
Kristine: Right. Totally. But the problem is that he doesn’t work out his feelings at all because he just gets consumed with solving the mystery of Joseph’s death and getting justice… I am confused over what the movie’s message about masculinity really is. Also, the class/political stuff was weird. Claire makes a point of saying how the Senator is a Republican, so presumably she and Russell are both liberals – but everyone is rich as fuck! Remember Russell’s big speech was about how money corrupts? And yet….
Sean: Kristine, for the first 20 minutes of the movie, Russell only speaks to underlings who call him “sir,” other than his rich friends. The doorman, Claire (who is really just his realtor in those first scenes), the groundskeeper who has to keep apologizing for interrupting his “composing,” the students in his “lecture series” who pretend every dumb thing he says is a brilliant bon mot, the poor maid who has to stand there feeling like crap because his daughter’s ball falls out of a box that Russell made her lug around while he stood there feeling things…
Kristine: The only character I read as not being rich (besides the servants) was the uncooperative old lady at the Historical Society. And as I understood it, she was feeding the Senator information in exchange for money, right? So the one not-rich person is a money-grubbing opportunist. I also have to quickly point out how ridiculous it is to pretend that in 1980 the most treasured possession of any rich 10-year-old girl is a fucking old-timey grimy rubber ball. What. The. Fuck. Hello, Rubix Cube? Simon Says? Lite Brite?
Sean: Just the whole world of the movie is so high society – conservatories, horseback riding, symphonies, fundraisers, historical societies… I kept saying to myself, “This is a fable for the dominant class.” Remember how the very first instance of supernatural activity in the movie is that one single key on the grand piano in the house gets pressed by an unseen entity? This movie’s idea of ghost terror is like, a non-corporeal being fucking with the fancy piano in the goddamned conservatory. I thought it made perfect sense that people like Russell, from the upper classes, would yearn for the era represented by the house, the Victorian decadence and total dividing line between social classes. He’s a relic, the house is a relic, so they’re made for each other.
Kristine: I don’t disagree, but I didn’t really pick up on that, to be honest with you. But just the preposterous notion that a grieving widower would drive up to that insanely huge and clearly haunted house and be like, “Yep! This is just what I want!” Unless you were going to do some serious soul searching, which of course Russell never does. He just leaps into action and solves shit. It’s frustrating how the movie gives us these lightning flashes of him being vulnerable, but then quickly stamps them out and reverts back to the Big Daddy Saves the Day plot. It makes me mad.
Sean: I thought Joseph’s murder/drowning scene was sexual.
Kristine: I think that was part of why it shocked me. It was so intimate, right? Did it upset you?
Sean: I did shock me. It didn’t upset me, but I was like, ‘This is sexual violation.’
Kristine: I agree that it was rape.
Sean: Yes, it was rape sex.
Kristine: It was “No, Daddy.”
Sean: It was grabbing wet naked legs and being like, “Daddy says do this.”
Kristine: And having no ownership of one’s own body. I feel upset right now.
Sean: It was a secret alone incident that Daddy then has to go to EUROPE to cover up.
Kristine: Yes yes yes.
Sean: Plus, the level of trauma exhibited by Joseph’s ghost just screamed sexual abuse to me.
Kristine: Also the way it was shot/presented, right? Isolated body parts, like the fists pounding against the sides of the bathtub… That is totally the way rape scenes are often shot – telling without showing.
Sean: Yes. And the pounding being one of the big manifestations of the haunting… Rape trauma. I think the two best scenes in the movie are (1) Russell finding that secret room, which was legitimately creepy, though the music box was dumb and all ready trite in 1980, and (2) the séance (which The Others obviously did an homage to). The séance is, for me, hands down the best and scariest scene in the movie.
Kristine: Yep, the music box was a big eyeroll. I think Medak didn’t know when to stop. He was all, “Okay! So Russell is haunted by the death of his wife and kid AND there’s this ghost AND this well AND this haunted medal of St. Christopher (or whatever) AND a haunted rubber ball AND an evil wheelchair AND a magic music box AND ghostly whispering and pounding AND a séance AND a fire AND well I guess I am done. Did I leave anything out?” If Claire was a throwaway character, what the fuck was the point of having her mother in two long scenes? Edit, Medak, edit!
Sean: Well, it was the end of the 1970s. Self indulgence was the fad of the times.
Kristine: Hmm, interesting point.
Sean: I think that’s the best séance scene I’ve seen though. I really love it.
Kristine: Yes, the séance was good.
Sean: I like how the clairvoyant was not at all quirky or goth, but just this dowdy, nondescript lady.
Sean: Can I disagree with an earlier point you made?
Kristine: Sure, please do.
Sean: I don’t think that the movie ends with Big Daddy Saves the Day.
Kristine: You think the patriarchy gets destroyed?
Sean: The movie thinks that John Russell represents the enlightened, anti-patriarchal post-est new masculinity. He sits around on fireplaces and talks about his “process” openly. The gruff and tightlipped old patriarchy of evil conspiracies and childrape is destroyed by Joseph the Genderqueer Ghost. That means John Russell is like, the knight errant of murdered sissies. He’s the guy who stands up to the Big Daddies and is like, “Not allowed!” Don’t you think that Russell and his wife went to key parties and took LSD together before she died?
Kristine: Right, I totally get that. That’s what I was trying to get at earlier but I didn’t express it well. I think the message is supposed to be about how Queer Joseph (cripple = not strong male = queer) is intolerable to the patriarchy, so he is violated and destroyed and replaced with a model that can do what men are supposed to do – conquer and rule and oppress and perpetuate the patriarchy of murder-rapers. And yes, I think Russell is meant to be the model of a new masculinity. But I think it fails, because I don’t think Russell has a true moment of self-discovery. In fact this might be part of what makes the Claire character such a bad idea. As soon as she enters the narrative, all of the feeling and expressing of emotions is shunted off of Russell and on to her. Remember when he has the vision of Joseph’s murder? He immediately goes and calmly recounts it to Claire, who weeps and moons over how sad and horrible it all is. But the movie would have been more radical is he had been the one emotionally devastated by it. If he had been unable to check his emotions (it would have made sense, too, because experiencing Joseph’s murder is the perfect catalyst to bring back all of his suppressed grief about the deaths of his wife and daughter). Instead, Claire is there to have feelings so that Russell doesn’t have to. Plus, Russell doesn’t take down the evil ruling class and get justice for Queerie because he listens or has empathy or allows himself to be vulnerable or any of that. He literally BURSTS into the secret room, sleuths out the crime, and asserts himself as the alpha male truth seeker. All classic RIMA behavior. That’s why I am complaining that Medak can’t commit to one thing, one storyline, one strong theme. Maybe that’s why his filmography is so schizoid.
Sean: I might agree with most of what you just said. Though, to play devil’s advocate, Russell doesn’t break down when he experiences Joseph’s murder because he doesn’t have suppressed emotions because he’s a post-therapy 1970s guy who actually expressed his grief at the deaths of his family and didn’t repress it. He doesn’t need the breakdown then because he’s in touch with his feelings.
Kristine: No. If he was truly in touch with his feelings then he would have wailed and screamed and cried after being forced to experience Joseph’s murder because it was horrible childrape and any sane and emotionally healthy person would cry about it. Claire is there to cry because the movie won’t risk Russell’s masculinity by letting him cry about it. Only the extermination of wife and daughter gets brief tears, because it’s “every straight man’s worst nightmare” blah blah blah because he couldn’t protect them which is classic patriarchal bullshit.
Sean: Ok, you’ve convinced me. I also agree with your earlier point that the movie pretends to present Joseph as a sympathetic victim but then completely indulges in making him the Mentally Ill Queer Monster Ghost that spazzily sends the evil wheelchair flipping around and terrorizes everyone with his excessive and over-the-top emotions. The movie is really like, Boys who have intense feelings are queer rapeghosts who destroy things. Thus, the house of the violation gets burned to the ground, a casualty of his faggy inability to control his emotions. But when the house burns down, does that mean Pretty Boy Joe is free at last?
Kristine: Who cares.
Sean: Why did Joseph need Russell to do stuff to free himself when he had an evil wheelchair?
Kristine: Because this movie has too many ideas that don’t build on one another at all, that’s what I am saying!! And where the fuck was Joseph’s mom in all this? I want to know if you care about gay Joseph? What did you think about his whisper voice?
Sean: I am contractually obligating to care about all murdered sissyboys. His whisper voice was some serious diva lisping.
Kristine: Riiiiiiiiiight? Gurl. When did you first see this movie, and did you think it was scary?
Sean: I first saw this like two years ago because somehow I’d never gotten around to it. It was on my list of shame. I thought it was creepy in parts, but not scary. Loved the diva séance. I would have loved this completely if the John Russell character had been played by… Angela Lansbury!
Kristine: I was surprised by what/who “the changeling” meant/was. I thought the story was going to be that Russell’s family dies, he moves up to this haunted mansion, goes nuts, and in the process adopts a ghost that he recognizes as his own child. I like that the actual changeling was this old man who was brought in as a doppelganger for the murdered sissy. I wanted more of him and I wanted his existence to more explicitly comment on the demented idea of masculinity and patriarchal lineage. It’s such a crazy storyline already and I am mad that it is all gunked up with everything and the kitchen sink plus an evil wheelchair. I also like the detail about how WWI facilitated the scam working… How the mechanisms of evil, violent men further the interests of other evil, violent men. Right?
Sean: Yes, totally agree on the system of evil daddies.
Kristine: Is John Russell free of that because his dream of being a daddy-husband was killed?
Sean: I think the idea is that he’s cultured and artistic, whereas evil daddies are politicians and industrialists who pretend to love the symphony, but are secretly liars who only like football.
Kristine: Yeah yeah. I get it but I maintain it doesn’t work. Umm, OMG. There is a sequel to The Changeling and it is by… Lamberto Bava?
Sean: Hahahaha! I had no idea.
Sean: Those Italians. They’ll make an unauthorized sequel to anything (see Patrick Still Lives).
Kristine: So, were you surprised as I was by who the changeling actually was? Do you agree that it’s a compelling idea?
Sean: I loved the idea. I also thought it tapped into some kind of post-war, post-Holocaust Painted Bird-type shit, just about foundlings and changelings and fingerling potatoes.
Kristine: Yes. YES YES YES to that. That and also the rejection of cripples/queers/any non-standard representation of alternate masculinity.
Sean: I mean, Carmichael is basically an evil old Nazi, right? Hiding in plain sight?
Kristine: Yes. Which is why I brought up Medak being Jewish. A European Jew, as it turns out.
Sean: One weird detail: His level of denial about his “father” committing the crime seemed sincere. Like, was he really unaware? Or was he part of the cover-up?
Kristine: Oh, of course he is aware!
Sean: Then I declare that there is Jewish collective trauma at the root of the movie.
Kristine: Add it to the ideas-and-themes woodpile on top of everything else Medak’s got there!
Sean: But the murdered Jews need a gentile bohemian to be their avenging angel? Weird.
Kristine: Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but Joseph is murdered for two reasons, right? One is that Nazi Daddy can’t stand having a subpar sissy son. The other is to steal his fortune. That is very much part of the European Jewish collective trauma, being annihilated so their resources and belongings (“my medal…”) can be plundered.
Sean: Right… I am so on board with this.
Kristine: His fortune was to go to charity if he died. No way was Nazi daddy going to let that money go to helping gross poor people when it could be used to perpetuate the patriarchy and conquer the world.
Sean: But weird how faded Victorian decadence leads to… a Holocaust recovery narrative. Especially Holocausty is that whole thing about sussing out the well under the lady’s house and finding the skeleton there.
Kristine: Yep. The violated body as evidence of father’s sins.
Sean: Are the millions of murdered Jews like, “I just have to start making demands of myself again. That’s just my process!”?
Kristine: This month of hauntings is all about the men and the monies.
Sean: Is it weird that The Changeling traumatized a generation? It has this killer rep as “one of the scariest movies ever” blah blah. Even you said it upset you, which is the first time this month you’ve been moved/scared by a movie. So, you have to give it some propers.
Kristine: I don’t understand its reputation.
Sean: Just people being like, ‘When I saw The Changeling as a kid I didn’t sleep for weeks…’
Kristine: But what is it they were scared of? The ruthless machinery of the patriarchy? Or an evil wheelchair chasing them around? I really want to know. Who was the bogey man? Evil Daddy or Joseph?
Sean: I think people were scared by finding the scary room, the atmosphere of dread, the scary séance, the ghost voice on the audio recording… The bouncing BALL…
Kristine: Scorsese said this about The Changeling and it is a lie: “Another haunted house movie, filled with sadness and dread. George C. Scott, recovering from the death of his wife and child, discovers the angry ghost of another dead child in the mansion where he’s staying.” He’s only angry and violent with the ladies. He is a docile pathetic whispering daffodil for Daddy Russell.
Sean: Straight men watch this movie and feel moved.
Kristine: I am disgusted.
Sean: Did the death of wife and daughter in the cold open shock you?
Kristine: I was sort of shocked. I did think it was horrifying watching him watch them be plowed down.
Sean: Scorsese’s quote reminds me of that infamous interview of Dustin Hoffman saying putting on the Tootise makeup made him realize sexism and he starts crying…
Kristine: I’m over these stupid poseur liberal men. Fuck ‘em all.
Sean: If your boyfriend grew his hair out like George C. Scott in this movie, what would you do?
Kristine: It just so happens he got a haircut mere days after we watched this. Coincidence? Probably not.
Sean: I actually think these daddy drama ghost melodramas are kind of subversive and cool, because they just simply locate the father in the domestic space. Rather than just consigning women there to be eternal mommies (I’m looking at you The Orphanage).
Kristine: Interesting how in daddy ghost dramas the home is destroyed (The Devil’s Backbone, this movie) or abandoned (The Amityville Horror) whereas in mommy ghost dramas the women move in forever (The Others, The Orphanage, House, etc.).
Sean: Totally! That is… uncool.
The Girl’s Rating: It’s always about the Nazis AND Nice try, folks AND Queerer than you’d think
The Freak’s Rating: Creepy and delightful AND Queerer than you’d think AND Daddy dramz!