Composer John Russell (George C. Scott) has been struck with tragedy when his wife and daughter were killed in a road accident while on holiday. Months later, although he still has not recovered from his loss, he takes a job as a university lecturer and moves into a local mansion. However, all is not well in the old, dark house, and John starts to hear booming sounds resounding around the walls, then taps turn themselves on when nobody is looking. Investigating, John discovers a hidden attic room where the heart of the hauntings appears to lie, but whose is the spirit that refuses to let him rest - and why?
A sombre haunted house tale for the most part, The Changeling was scripted by William Gray and Diana Maddox, from a story by Russell Hunter. It is careful to set up an atmosphere of foreboding and eerie menace, and the house is almost a character in itself, with its gloomy passageways and staircases. At first we believe John, played with appropriate gravity by Scott, is being visited by the ghost of his dead daughter: he keeps her rubber ball as a memento, and can't get her death out of his mind. But then it transpires that the house has a history, and the ghost is connected with the wealthy family who lived there at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The ghost has obviously settled on John as its centre of attention because of the composer's bereavement - misery loves company, after all. Therefore the first half of the film is expertly arranged for the utmost spookiness; the rubber ball bounces down the hall stairway, so John takes it to a bridge and throws it into the water. Once he gets home, yes, the ball bounces back down the stairs again, as if to say, "You're not getting rid of me that easily." John then calls in the psychics for a seance, a well-researched and powerful scene, with automatic writing and point-of-view shots of the spirit prowling around the corridors. A spot of EVP rounds off the sequence, by which John works out the true identity of the spectre.
Unfortunately, the traditional ghost story, of which this has been a fine example up to the halfway point, is not nearly as robust as the film makers seem to think it is. What is most effective as a delicate, creepy account tends to fall apart when things go over the top, as they do here. Egged on by supernatural means, John tracks down the corpse of the ghost in a well underneath a different house, and links the whole murderous affair of over sixty years ago to an elderly senator (Melvyn Douglas). Then avarice raises its ugly head, and what was a good detective story takes on a conspiratorial tone.
Once the ghost starts getting carried away by killing off one of the characters, The Changeling becomes silly. For a film with a reputation for being quietly chilling, the booms, door slammings, runaway wheelchairs and other extreme behaviour shatter the previously spooky air and it all turns VERY LOUD. By concentrating more on the angle of John's tenacious hold on grief and how it linked to the ghost's equally tenacious hold on the living, a touching, more resonant story could have resulted. Instead, we are offered the spectacle of paranormal explosions and hurricane-force winds. The first stages remain more effective. Music by Rick Wilkins.