John Russell (George C. Scott), a composer living in New York, New York, moves cross-country to Washington state following the deaths of his wife and daughter in a traffic accident while on a winter vacation in upstate New York. In suburban Seattle, John rents a large, old and eerie Victorian-era mansion and begins piecing his life back together.
However, John soon discovers that he has unexpected and unwelcome company in his new home. The presence makes its existence felt by various phenomena such as shattering windows, abruptly opening and shutting doors, and manifesting itself dramatically during a seance. John investigates the house and its previous tenants and finds that the mystery is linked to a powerful local family, the heir of which is a wealthy United States senator, Joseph Carmichael.
John subsequently discovers that the real Joseph Carmichael (who was born in 1900) was murdered in 1906 by his father, Richard. Joseph was a crippled, sickly child, and in the event of his death before his 21st birthday, the family fortune (which in 1905, he inherited from his late maternal grandfather) would pass to charity. Desperate to keep control of the fortune, Joseph's father drowned young Joseph in the bathtub, secretly replaced him with a healthy orphan, and took the orphan to Europe in the guise of seeking a treatment or cure. He returned in 1918 with the impostor, now grown and "cured" of his illness, and continued as if nothing had happened.
Now, the ghost of the real Joseph haunts the house, making great efforts to persuade John to investigate his murder, and give him some form of justice. John's investigation leads him to a property that was once owned by the Carmichael family, and after convincing Mrs. Gray (the owner of the property and whose daughter has seen Joseph's ghost), John discovers the skeletal remains of Joseph in a well underneath the house, as well as his birth medal.
After taking the medal without handing it over to the police, John attempts to speak to Senator Carmichael as he is about to depart by plane but is restrained by police. It is then revealed that the Senator has an identical medal to the one John found. The Senator then sends a detective, Captain DeWitt, to John's home in an attempt to retrieve the medal. John refuses, and when DeWitt leaves to obtain a search warrant, his vehicle mysteriously crashes, killing him.
After hearing of DeWitt's death, the Senator finally agrees to listen to John's story and meets with him. John reveals the entire story to the Senator, that his father murdered his natural son and replaced him with a changeling, which is the Senator. The Senator refuses to believe the story and angrily berates John for accusing his father (whom he claims was a "loving man") of murder. John then leaves the real Joseph's medal, files and the only copy of the seance recording and apologizes. The Senator threatens John that there will be consequences if he has told anyone else of his story.
Meanwhile, John's realtor and friend, Claire, goes to the house alone in an attempt to find John and is chased by Joseph's wheelchair until she falls down the stairs. Meanwhile, the house begins to shake and rumble. John arrives, and escorts Claire outside, and then goes back inside to try and stop the ghost of Joseph. A strong wind causes John to fall from the second story, but he survives. Joseph then lights the house on fire.
Meanwhile, back at the Senator's home, he is observing the two birth medallions, and throws his duplicate medal away, placing Joseph's medal on a portrait of his father. Suddenly, the picture and the desk start shaking violently and an illusion of the Senator is transported to the house and begins to climb the stairs which then crumble. John sees the Senator's illusion walking up the main staircase, and narrowly escapes being crushed by a chandelier. Meanwhile, the Senator's illusion then climbs the stairs to Joseph's attic room where he witnesses how his father murdered the real Joseph by drowning him. Meanwhile, back at the mansion, the Senator himself suffers a heart attack and dies as Joseph's attic room explodes. John and Claire arrive and see the Senator's body being hoisted away. The ambulance then passes the Carmichael mansion, which is now completely engulfed in flames.
The next morning, Joseph's burnt wheelchair sits upright amid the ruins of the mansion. His music box opens and begins playing a lullaby.George C. Scott as John Russell, composer
Trish Van Devere as Claire Norman
Melvyn Douglas as Sen. Joseph Carmichael
John Colicos as De Witt
Jean Marsh as Joanna Russell
Barry Morse as Doctor Pemberton
Madeleine Sherwood as Mrs. Norman
Helen Burns as Leah Harmon
Frances Hyland as Mrs. Grey
Eric Christmas as Albert Harmon
Roberta Maxwell as Eva Lingstrom
The film's screenplay was inspired by mysterious events that allegedly took place at the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Denver, Colorado, while playwright Russell Hunter was living there during the 1960s. After experiencing a series of unexplained phenomena, Hunter said he found a century-old journal in a hidden room detailing the life of a disabled boy who was kept in isolation by his parents. During a séance, he claimed, the spirit of a deceased boy directed him to another house, where he discovered human remains and a gold medallion bearing the dead boy’s name. Henry Treat Rogers, a wealthy Denver attorney, and his wife were childless; but prior inhabitants of the house remain undocumented. The mansion was demolished during the 1980s and replaced with a high-rise apartment building.
While The Changeling is set in Seattle, most of its scenes were filmed in the Canadian cities of Vancouver and Victoria, and their environs. Exceptions include introductory location shooting in New York City and establishing shots of Seattle points of interest, including SeaTac Airport, University of Washington's Red Square, the Space Needle, the Rainier Tower, and the Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge. Interior college scenes were shot at the University of Toronto. The Historical Society was Vancouver's historic Hotel Europe. The senator's home was a building on the grounds of Royal Roads Military College (now Royal Roads University) in Victoria. Exterior shots of Russell's home were filmed using a facade, erected in front of an existing home in Victoria. The haunted mansion's interior was a series of interconnected sets on a Vancouver movie lot.
Peter Medak was the third director hired for the project. His predecessors, Donald Cammell and Tony Richardson, both withdrew due to "creative differences".
The Changeling won the first ever Genie Award for Best Canadian Film. It also won the following Genie Awards:Best Foreign Actor - George C. Scott
Best Foreign Actress - Trish Van Devere
Best Adapted Screenplay - William Gray and Diana Maddox
Best Art Design - Trevor Williams
Best Cinematography - John Coquillon
Best Sound - Joe Grimaldi, Austin Grimaldi, Dino Pigat, Karl Scherer
Best Sound Editing - Patrick Drummond, Dennis Drummond, Robert Grieve
This film was #54 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Director Martin Scorsese placed The Changeling on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time.
The Soundtrack to The Changeling was released by Percepto Records on CD on December 21, 2001 and was limited to 1,000 copies. On April 13, 2007, Percepto released a 2-CD "Deluxe Edition" of the soundtrack, which was also limited to 1,000 copies and has subsequently been sold out.