Directed by Peter Medak
Written by Russell Hunter, William Gray and Diana Maddox
1 hour, 47 minutes
I watched it on Shudder.
I’ve had an odd couple of months, y’all. Apart from just the glorious time suck of the holiday season, my family and I live in Agoura Hills and had to evacuate our house due to the Woolsey Fire. We were supremely lucky and even had a pleasant place to wait out the evacuation, thanks to our kind friends Menaka and Ed Evans. It was an empty, furnished condo in Redondo Beach with an indoor swimming pool and right next to a wilderness park (rough life). But even so, I wonder how much more tolerant folks would become of refugees if they even had to experience the worry and unsettled feeling of being evacuated. Our house was spared. We didn’t even have smoke damage. And because I got confused and thought the mandatory evacuation went into effect hours before it actually did, we didn’t even have nasty traffic leaving, let alone the horror of driving right past a booming fire.
And then in the midst of the Christmas season, my little girl fell on a walkway of all things and broke her leg, requiring surgery and a cast. She’s only seven and it’s a full leg cast, so no crutches for her. So she’s been in a wheelchair for about three weeks. And damnit, our house is absolutely loaded with stairs. There’s a flight of them going up to her room so it’s a no-go on sleeping upstairs. So my husband and I have been taking turns having “slumber parties” with her on the couch. And then there’s all these damn decorative two stairs at a time scattered all over the house that we have to hustle that big wheelchair over to take her to the bathroom or the living room or outside. We’re a family that’s already familiar with both the glories of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a Free and Appropriate Public Education and the various struggles of life with a disability. Our daughter also has Autism and my brother and sister are blind. But just this small window into life as a wheelchair user made me curious to check out some horror films with wheelchair users. I’m curious about how they portray that experience, if it would be all pure villainous or all super tragedy. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a wheelchair user and my daughter’s situation has a fast approaching end date. So I can’t truly understand but I’m guessing this real-life empathy might give me a small clue into that experience.
So I looked up horror films with wheelchair users featured. I didn’t find many, especially that I hadn’t already seen. My friend Jess quipped, “Probably because it’s hard A.F. to get away from a murderer in a wheelchair.” But I did find that one of my big viewing gaps, the ghost story classic “The Changeling” fit the bill. Now, as it turns out, this only barely applies in terms of screen time but thematically, it couldn’t be stronger.
The film follows John Russell (George C. Scott), a composer and pianist whose wife and daughter have recently been killed in a car accident, which he had to watch from a payphone across the street. He might be one of the most well adjusted grieving parents I’ve seen in a movie, but I kind of dug that. We see small bits of him sobbing and lost in thought so it’s not total avoidance. But then again, maybe it was just dudes have to be stoic, even after horrific loss. But mostly, we see him trying to move on. This moving on leads him to take a professorship in Seattle, which means dude needs a new place to live. And since he doesn’t want to bother his new neighbors with his constant piano playing, he’s hoping for a place with a music room. His friends hook him up with the local historical society, and a nice young lady named Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) from the society rents him an epic mansion. For one dude and his piano. Okay.
But at least he asks how much goes into maintaining such a place and they reassure him that it comes with a caretaker. Okay, cool, he thinks, I guess I’m not easily creeped out by huge empty, gothic spaces.
But as it turns out, he should be. The house starts… communicating. I don’t want to spoil too much of the specifics here. (Read past the spoiler alert at the bottom for that.) I didn’t find the movie scary in the least, but I think I’m in the minority. It’s even one of Stephen King’s favorite scary flicks. But even though I wasn’t spooked, I was really touched by it.
Maybe I didn’t find it scary because 1980 was quite a while ago now and I’ve seen so many other more aggressive ghost stories before this one. But then again “The Haunting,” which is from the ‘60s, still holds up as terrifying. “The Changeling” is more of a thoughtful and caring film. The house has a genuine, earned purpose in what it does to John Russell. (I like the character’s full name so I’m just going to keep using it.)
Thankfully, there isn’t a ton of breath wasted on the usual “you must be crazy, ghosts aren’t real” conversations and this community-spirit approach of Claire and others working to solve a haunting was so refreshing. The story was inspired by Russell Hunter’s (hmm, wonder where John Russell got his name) own experience with a haunted mansion. Russell Hunter was a playwright and composer and wrote the story for the film. Director Peter Mendak was the third one on the project, hired just a month before production, so perhaps there would have been a bit more atmosphere and tension built in with a director who’d lived with the movie for longer. I imagine coming from a specific, real-life encounter probably added to its strong story core.
But even so, there are some odd story choices. John Russell’s motivations are sometimes muddled in male ego nonsense where they could’ve been a bit sharpened with more of a “don’t trust the man” approach. But other than those slight shades, he’s a committed, caring character, which makes sense for someone in both deep grief and a composer. All of the composers I’ve known have been peaceful, artistic, sweet folks, so the characterization felt apt to me.
I so appreciated that Claire, the female character who accepts responsibility in putting John Russell into a haunted house and helps him, never turns into a hysterical mess or a love interest. She’s a kind human being who makes way less odd choices than her male counterpart. (I only counted one and wouldn’t ya know, it was at the end.) This is especially impressive, considering Trish Van Devere was married to George C. Scott. She does a much better job acting scared than Scott does. He’s often way too chill. Maybe actresses have more experience with that?
The entity in the house isn’t out to hurt John Russell. It’s a broken hearted little boy who was murdered by his father in the attic. That’s heinous enough, to be sure, but the reason why is next level, supreme evil. The boy was disabled and medically fragile, hence the tiny wheelchair John finds in the attic. Since my daughter has a disability, this was a really personal thing for me to watch. But this father didn’t even just unforgivably snap, as many other parents of disabled kids have sadly done. He made a calculated move to be sure he would inherit the enormous fortune his deceased wife family’s estate passed on to her little boy, bypassing her husband. So he killed his little boy, buried him in secret, did a super secret switch job of adopting (buying?) another boy from an orphanage and then took him overseas for a long time so no one would question how he could be cured and, ya know, probably look pretty different. Super gothic sort of business, even though it’s set in Seattle. So yes, it does tip into my fear that the wheelchair user in the horror movie would be a tragic figure so perhaps that is problematic. But I do think that giving him agency without making him terrifying was a nice step, especially for a studio movie from 1980.
I found it so remarkable that a ghost movie respected its ghost so much that it gave him real agency in bringing his life (and death) to light, in seeking to bring out the truth more than just act out some super violent vengeance (there’s only a little of that). And that the ghost was a disabled child who was treated with absolute respect that his life was worthwhile and he was smart and capable enough to find a sympathetic living being in John Russell was lovely to see. So even though it wasn’t scary, it had a great big heart in that haunted house.