The Changeling (1980): Subtle Horror Masterpiece
A ghost story is a hard one to manage. As far as concocting a scary story for a horror movie, it’s easy for a movie about a haunting to slip into utter ridiculousness as each scare, by formulaic definition, must top the last one until, at the very end of the movie, anything that once resembled subtlety is thrown out the window in favor of keeping the audience from growing bored.
If you were to compare one extreme (a masterwork of subtlety and nuance) to another (an abomination of special effects and sound effects used to assault the senses), I’d choose The Haunting. For both. The Haunting (1963) is in no hurry to divulge any of its macabre secrets and takes great pleasure in exploring the ambiguity of its horrors. The Haunting (1999) quickly flies off the rails at breakneck speed and throws in a ludicrous plot and scheme involving an evil entity that must collect souls. One is a prideful work of darkness and mystery; the other is an awesome failure that’s as funny as some of the best comedies without meaning to be.
The Changeling (1980) is a great movie. It’s surprising to me with the many lists put out each year about the greatest horror movies or the greatest specific sub-genre of horror, it’s rarely ever mentioned. Martin Scorsese did put it on his list of the 11 Scariest Movies, but outside of his recommendation and a loving cult viewership online, it’s largely unknown by mainstream audiences.
The Changeling should be held in high regard among other classics of the genre, along titles such as, say, Poltergeist or The Sixth Sense or The Haunting (1963, of course). It has influenced numerous contemporary horror films such as Insidious with its nail-biting séance sequence that, if not influenced directly, must have been a subconscious shout-out, and Alejandro Amenábar directly cited The Changeling as an inspiration for The Others.
On Roger Ebert’s audio commentary for Dark City, he—paraphrasing a similar statement from Howard Hawks—defines a “great film” in simple terms. A great film has three great scenes, and no bad ones. When thinking of any movie you consider to be great or one of your personal favorites, you’ll easily be able to think of three absolutely, pitch-perfect scenes… and no bad scenes. The Changeling’s three great scenes are: the chilling opening, the scene where our hero discovers the hidden room, and the oft-copied séance scene.
Like all great gothic melodramas, The Changeling begins with tragedy. The word “melodrama” seems to rub people the wrong way, as if it’s an inherent statement on an overwrought story with cheesy inspirations. A melodrama is only a genre that utilizes exaggerated plot developments in order to explore themes and emotions. “Melodramatic” is often a denotative statement used to decry a story, but many stories are both masterpieces and melodramas—Guillermo del Toro is a master of modern melodrama.
John Russell, played magnificently by George C. Scott, is with his wife and daughter in upstate New York when their car breaks down. The movie begins with them pushing the vehicle to safety off the side of the road. As he goes to use a telephone to call for assistance, a semi-truck, spooked by another car swerving for control on the icy roads, comes barreling down on his wife and daughter who are making snow angels by the broken down vehicle, and kills them instantly. John is trapped inside the payphone, helplessly watching his entire family destroyed in the blink of an eye.
Many movies have opened similarly, but this movie does something to really put you ill-at-ease as you watch the goings on. It is absolutely terrifying. The direction, editing and acting all work together to create a scene that is just heart-wrenching. It defines the actions that follow later and you can’t help but call back to it and remember it whenever the character of John Russell makes a decision. The scene lasts only a few minutes on the screen but makes a lasting effect.
George C. Scott, who won his much deserved Oscar for Patton had been sometimes criticized for accepting roles that are much in line for what made him famous in the first place and actively worked as a self-parody, similar to Robert Stack or Adam West. When you look at his performances in Doctor Strangelove and in this, you begin to appreciate his effortless range. In one scene in the movie, after he seemingly comes to terms with the tragedy he survived, he awakes early in the morning and begins to cry deep, mourning sobs. In that moment, I was drawn to the plot and immediately forgot that I was watching a performance. It played out so naturally and realistically, it felt like I was a fly on the wall, watching a heartbroken man try to make sense of his life.
John Russell, in the aftermath of what had happened to his wife and daughter, relocates to Seattle. As a professor of advanced musical theory, he begins teaching a class at the local university and begins composing music as a means of coping. In need of living in a place of his own, he settles on an historical house in town that is quite possibly the most haunted-looking house on the market. It is a large mansion that has been unoccupied for 12 years. His purchase seemed to make sense on a symbolic level, something that could provide him with housing, a comfortable bed but still allow him to continue to be lonely in such a large, empty space.
Once there, within days, he begins to realize that he is sharing his abode with the spirit of a soul who had been tragically killed. What I liked best about his investigation is that he researches the house and finds out that the child of a previous occupant had died in a freak accident. He accepts this to be the soul that is haunting the house, but as the plot moves along, his initial suspicion is proved to be incorrect. In most movies, when the main character makes a discovery, that had to be the one, absolute truth… because the main character discovered it. How can it be wrong? In a twist and subversion of story development, John’s theory is proven to be incorrect and we discover the truth, the real meaning of the titular changeling.
How does a movie manage the ever-mounting scares of a ghost story without becoming a ridiculous spectacle? It needs a plot to match. A horror movie’s scares are only as good as its plot. The scares in The Changeling remain subtle throughout. It never really attempts to out-do itself. It’s confidently helmed by Peter Medak, a director with a solid career, consisting of some 60 movies and television episodes, but never has he been as on-point as with this film. The Changeling is surely his masterpiece. I want to write, in detail, about the expertly crafted scares because they were phenomenal, but I want to entice anyone and everyone to see this movie.
At one point, John cries out to the house, “You goddamn son of a bitch. What is it you want?” and we begin to realize the motivation of the spirit. It’s revenge. Without ever having to say directly so to the audience, we realize that the vengeful spirit is a childish one, because it died when it was a child for selfish purposes. Aside from a few brief glimpses, we never see it, but we know that it scorned and it is selfish because it’s the ghost of a little boy.
The movie is not without its faults. In one scene in particular, in a mostly devoid-of-bloodshed chiller, the spirit of the mansion may have, though not explicitly (but heavily insinuated), kills a problem-character to the plot who might bring down or add conflict the story. The resolution felt rushed. It felt out of place. In the scene where John first witnesses, first hand, the spooky specter he’s housemates with reflected in a bathtub filled with water, the scenes cuts to him calmly explaining his situation the following morning. Had I been the main character, the scene would have cut to me, thousands of miles away in a hotel room, with a squirt gun filled with holy water under my pillow.
The ending, too, felt out of place. In such a sure and confident movie, the destructive finale seemed like it would have benefitted a dumber, blunter plot. Here, it seemed like maybe it was studio interference wanting some fireworks at the end to wake up anyone who didn’t want to follow along with the serpentine plot and fell asleep. As much as I wished the ending had been subtler, the last shot before the final credit crawl is amazing.
The Changeling may be a good way to fill the void until The Conjuring is released this summer. Both are movies that have been Rated R by the MPAA without featuring any gore, nudity or foul language, but restricted to a mature audience for simply being too scary. The Changeling is mostly free of bloodshed, has only limited swearing (no F-words, S-words) and no sexuality whatsoever. If rated today, I imagine it would secure a PG-13 rating.
Guest post by Billy Russell