Harking back to a time when scary movies were actually scary, actors who look realistic as opposed to every single one looking like a model for women’s magazines and creative camera techniques employed because we lacked the technology to just CG it post-production, The Changeling is a breath of fresh air for anyone looking to watch something genuinely scary, intelligent and substantial. I’m a personal fan of old thriller/horror films. It seems like a bit of an art that got lost somewhere along the way. Now, a film’s idea of scaring you is to show you something completely reprehensible with torture porn or the jump scare. The Changeling is a film that burned itself into my memory as a child. Certain scenes have remained with me my entire life and have lost little to no impact whatsoever with a very recent viewing. The goosebumps still appeared, and my confidence was still rattled. Let’s take a look…..
Peter Medak, 1980, US
Starting off as what seems a pretty generic story about a man who loses his wife and child in an accident then moves into a haunted house, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it wouldn’t break any new ground. Here’s where you’d be wrong. George C. Scott stars as John Russell. A musical genius, composer, lecturer and proud husband and father. After losing his wife and child in a startling accident, John leaves and heads off to make a fresh start, trying to put it all behind him. Looking for a new place to rent, John meets with a real estate agent named Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) who advises him that he could rent a place on the cheap from the Historical Society. A grand old mansion where he will have the space to deliver music lessons and compose to his hearts content. From here, it’s not hard to see where we’re headed. What makes this film stand out from the crowd is the complexity of the reasons behind the haunting and John’s slow unravelling of the truth behind it all. It’s not a simple cut-and-dried haunted house film. There is a depth to the plot that is rare in these films and as it goes on you’ll find yourself intrigued to know the truth. It’s also something you’ll contemplate often, well after watching it.
Although the entity within the house appears at first to be quite malevolent, the unfolding story makes you empathize with it although the way it puts its message across can be at times extreme, sometimes utterly terrifying. It’s all very well done. The old style cinematographic techniques work a charm and gives me the heebie jeebies. I guess it’s because you do not expect to see or hear things that we’re used to with film today. Too many times you’ll find yourself thinking that you know what is about to happen and then be reminded that this film was made long before a seemingly specific formula for supernatural films was implemented. There are a couple of moments of “jump-scare” but again, quite different to what you would expect. It’s just so refreshing to go back and revisit these older films where everyone isn’t trying to copy the success of everyone else and find these little gems of originality. Even something so simple as a young boy’s face seen underwater in the bath, spliced in a little crudely, but still delivering the right amount of chill to the spine.
The music, or more specifically, the score and certain orchestral hits that accompany the scares are suitably antique sounding in tone and very unsettling. These old scores really get under my skin. Take the music from The Omen, The Exorcist, or many other old horrors starting in “The” and put it up against today’s offerings and there’s really no comparison. The only film that I have seen lately that employs this older sound design was the recent “Insidious”. Obviously the directors of Insidious also have a great affection for this older style of an audible dread delivery system. Too often I believe that sound is second on the list to the visuals when films are being made and considered the least important. I would go as far as saying that it’s THE most important aspect. Sound, utilized correctly, can put the fear into you far better than any visual could ever hope to achieve. Hopefully it’ll be an art that is one day revived in film and we can get back to some genuine skin crawling tension and fear.
I would like to talk further about certain things I saw as a child in The Changeling that still haunt me today. It’s not anything gory as such but more the sheer terrifying premise of what John and Claire experience within the old mansion. I won’t talk about these instances however as I really do implore you to see this incredible piece of film and experience it for yourself. I’ll just say that two scenes in particular got to me and still do. One with a ball and some stairs and another with a wheelchair and some stairs. I won’t say anymore. Just find and watch this film, in the dark, with a partner, sibling, friend or on your own if you will. I guarantee you’ll have a lot of fun with it as well as a memorable experience with quite the whodunit plot and sad history of how the house came to be haunted. Usually these things don’t often come together in the one film successfully.
There isn’t a lot to fault with the film in my personal opinion. Obviously it has aged somewhat but rather than think that it detracts from the experience, I believe it enhances it. It stands the test of time and considering that this film is now 31 years old, that’s quite a feat. Do yourself a favour and treat yourself to a genuine Halloween experience. This film is worthy of your time and nerves.