THE CHANGELING. Very elegant and scary horror classic
Some time ago, I heard about young people who, when watching movies, adhere to only one rule – they don’t get close to films older than themselves. So, if they were born in the mid-nineties, they would immediately reject the idea of watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, or Goodfellas, let alone older titles. Consequently, when it comes to Poltergeist, The Wicker Man, or A Nightmare on Elm Street, there’s a chance that they might be familiar with the plots of these films, but not from the originals, but rather from quite recent remakes. Particularly bad remakes, which is important. Conversations with them would certainly be an interesting experience, probably fascinating and frustrating at the same time, because if their knowledge of cinema is limited to the last twenty years, the earliest vampire film for them might be something like Vampire in Brooklyn (God forbid, if they were born a year earlier, then they might boast knowledge of Interview with the Vampire).
So, if we assume that the era is considered to be the time starting from our birth, and we can only watch films made from that point onwards, then even I shouldn’t have seen the one I’m talking about today. This horror film, The Changeling, was made in 1980, which is four years before I was born. In the meantime, some of the best films by John Carpenter (The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine), The Shining, the first Indiana Jones film, and Spielberg’s E.T. were released. Not to mention Blade Runner, Evil Dead, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, First Blood, Airplane!, The Elephant Man, Mad Max 2, Blues Brothers, and many more. I could go on for a long time because the list is incredibly rich. Now, try to imagine that you would never see these films. Difficult, isn’t it? The mere awareness of this loss seems painful. Perhaps ignorance hurts less, or not at all. I will never know, but I think I wouldn’t want to.
Please forgive me for this digression, which nicely corresponds with the solution in The Changeling. I won’t reveal it to avoid spoiling the surprise, which is abundant in this Canadian film by Peter Medak, a versatile filmmaker from Hungary. He has directed comedies (The Ruling Class, Zorro: The Gay Blade), action films (The Krays, Romeo Is Bleeding), as well as films on the border of horror and science fiction (Species II). In the case of The Changeling, we get a classic ghost story that eventually turns into a clever mystery. So, we have double satisfaction – we get scared, and at the same time, we ponder the purpose of this fright.
Composer John Russell (the legendary George C. Scott) tragically loses his wife and young daughter in a car accident. Several months later, he moves to Seattle, where he takes a position as a teacher at a local university. The house he decides to rent is a large historic mansion that has been unoccupied for over a decade, although this doesn’t bother Russell. Soon, however, he is haunted by the daily, mysterious, and unidentifiable thumping sounds, as if someone is banging on pipes, and strange signals that suggest someone else is in the building. When he discovers a hidden room in the house, containing a music box with a melody that he believes he composed recently, he becomes convinced of the place’s extraordinary nature. And when he encounters the apparition of a drowned child in the bathtub, he is certain that the house is haunted. Along with a local historian (Scott’s real-life wife, Trish Van Devere), he decides to uncover the mystery of the place.
The Changeling is considered a classic of the horror genre, a reputation it earned through its exceptional staying power in the VHS era. Although I only watched it for the first time this decade, I was well aware of the film’s reputation from the stories of viewers from that time. The film enjoyed such popularity and esteem that one of the cleverer distributors decided to capitalize on it by releasing Dario Argento’s Trauma on video as Changeling 2: Trauma, even though the plots of these two films have nothing in common.
The Changeling is a very elegant horror film, avoiding macabre elements in favor of a mysterious atmosphere, characteristic of haunted house tales, and a very sober assessment of the situation by the main character.
John Russell doesn’t behave like the stereotypical character in such stories who would instantly reject the supernatural explanation, only to have their rational worldview systematically shattered by increasingly bizarre manifestations of the supernatural. He is not a skeptic, but rather someone who rationally seeks to understand the presence of a ghost. The script helps differentiate one from the other. Russell initially searches for the source of the mysterious sounds, the flickering lights, the doors opening and closing by invisible hands, but very quickly realizes that any straightforward (i.e., non-supernatural) explanation is impossible. Therefore, he turns to the most appropriate person in his view – a medium. In his actions and choices, there is a logic that is hard to dismiss, even though it stems from a conviction of the unquestionable existence of the afterlife. For the main character, who was recently in mourning, this is a chance for a form of redemption. Although he couldn’t save his wife and daughter, perhaps he can help a child who has long since passed away. However, the question remains, how to recognize the spirit’s intent and purpose?
Still, Medak’s settling of scores has a different dimension than in typical ghost stories. It brings more existential unease, triggered by the fact that the vengeful spirit is a child, while its target is an extremely elderly person who probably isn’t even aware of their guilt. Russell, on the other hand, becomes more than just a messenger; he serves as the conscience of both sides, desiring to reveal the secret but not at the cost of another death. George C. Scott plays him well as a determined and deeply marked hero, though it is not easy to fear for him. First of all, because Russell never seems to be truly threatened – the strange occurrences more often help than hinder his character’s pursuit of solving the mystery. Secondly, Scott himself, with his appearance, doesn’t resemble a victim at any point but rather a man who knows how to get out of any predicament. Therefore, the tension carefully constructed by the director often lacks support in the film’s most crucial character.
This doesn’t change the fact that Medak can scare. The creaking and squeaking floors, doors, and walls in the haunted house create a pleasantly eerie atmosphere, but the further you go, the more thrills there are.
The séance raises strong emotions, as does the playback of the tape with ghostly sounds, and the memorable image of the bouncing ball falling down the stairs plays on the imagination. There are also some scenes that border on being a bit cheesy, like the pursuit of a wheelchair (!) down the stairs after the lady from the Historic Preservation Society, but these are relatively few. They appear to be a consequence of the creators’ decision to tell the story with full seriousness and commitment, which only accentuates the absurdity of some ideas. Nonetheless, the entire film is skillfully directed by a filmmaker with a strong script full of surprises but also wisely leaving some intricacies of the plot unexplained.
What’s most interesting in The Changeling seems somewhat hidden in the background – on the surface, it’s a film about uncovering a crime, aiding those who can no longer speak. However, it’s primarily a story about the inability to communicate and an not necessarily successful attempt to make amends for the past. An eye for an eye might seem logical, even a just sentence from the dead upon the living, but not only the main character sees this as an unnecessary conclusion. The awareness of the lie that underlies someone’s life is punishment enough, especially since there’s no time to correct it.
Medak’s work may seem like one of those standard ghost stories set in old haunted houses, which you watch for the atmosphere alone. However, the way the scriptwriters unveil the layers of the mystery in The Changeling makes it a film that, despite paying homage to the classics of the horror genre, both in cinema and literature, also feels quite close to contemporary horror films. Especially when watching this classic today, it’s easy to notice inspirations in later, more well-known horror works. Current creators not only draw from formal elements but, most importantly, from the storytelling itself. Ideas like discovering bodies in wells were later used in The Ring, the séance scene in the finale of The Others strongly resembles the one in the film with George C. Scott, and the rolling ball down the stairs was recently seen in The Conjuring and Insidious.
However, these references may go unnoticed by the young people I started this text with. They will live under the assumption that what they’ve seen in those more recent titles is original and perhaps perfect. I don’t wish them the fate of one of the characters in The Changeling, whose lie caught up with him at the end of his life when there was no chance for change. No matter how unattractive old films may seem to them, their quality has little to do with the time they were made. Also, fear doesn’t look at the production date. Unless they consider an older George C. Scott in a red sweater truly terrifying.