Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
Peter Medak’s The Changeling could easily have been our pick for the best horror film of 1980 during our Century of Terror project, if not for the existence of a little Stanley Kubrick ditty known as The Shining. On some level that feels fitting for The Changeling, though, a film with universal critical admiration but perhaps a lack of the widespread audience recognition it deserves. And it’s not necessarily difficult to see why more people haven’t seen the film now, some 40 years later—it’s a uniquely cold, methodical, brooding work of suspense that doesn’t scream “wide appeal” despite what is on the surface a comfortably familiar ghost story. In the same vein of say, Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, however, this is ultimately a film about human beings who feel compelled to exhume and seek justice for the crimes of the past, in order to save their own souls.
The Changeling is that rarest of horror marvels: A ghost story that seasoned horror fans may actually find genuinely frightening at times. Part classical haunted house tale, part psychological horror and part detective mystery, it stars the ever-gruff George C. Scott as a man attempting to heal from personal tragedy by renting a huge, crumbling Victorian mansion…which of course, turns out to be haunted. Scott is your classic ghost story protagonist, in the sense that he’s haunted in more ways than one, here by the shocking and sudden death of his wife and daughter in a car wreck only months before. In his sprawling new abode, he claims to seek solace to toil on musical composition, but it seems clear to us immediately that his true motivation is to find a dilapidated place in which he can truly wallow in his sorrow, perhaps until he wastes away to nothing. His John Russell is a man with no remaining ties to our physical world, and perhaps it’s that very thing that forges his connection to the world beyond.
The house quickly proves to be a conduit for restless spirits, but as in the aforementioned Devil’s Backbone, they don’t seem to be necessarily malevolent in nature—but the actions that led to their demise certainly were. This period of discovery is The Changeling at its best, as the resistant George C. Scott is increasingly confronted with evidence that can’t be ignored, forcing him to consider the mysteries that exist beyond the veil, including the spiritual fate of his own wife and child. Repeated use of key objects, especially a child’s toy ball, crop up in instantly iconic sequences that drive our protagonist first to horror, and eventually to burning curiosity over what role this spirit wants him to play in what might be construed as either justice, or vengeance. The question becomes, how far is this man willing to go in the name of a dead child? What kind of responsibility does each of us have to seek justice, even when the results are terrifying in their implications? Every choice in The Changeling feels particularly weighty and profound.
These questions make up the ethical heart of the film’s story, but from a nuts-and-bolts perspective it’s simply an excellent, slow-burn work of steadily mounting suspense. The aforementioned scene with the toy ball is a genuinely suspenseful sequence that would send any real-life homeowner to their real estate agent’s office the next day, but Medak simultaneously demonstrates a deft hand at the art of the perfectly timed jump scare. In several instances—most famously during the height of a séance, as Scott reaches out to contact the boy who died in his home—the camera goes out of its way to skillfully misdirect the audience’s attention onto a focal object, before shocking them when a completely different object becomes the actual vessel for a shocking reveal. In doing so, The Changeling takes conventional scares and makes them unforgettable.
If it were produced today, The Changeling might well end up falling into the sober-minded corner of the horror world that some have taken to labeling as “elevated” horror, seemingly dismissive of the more populist and titillating spirit we associate with the genre. But although it does have a heartbreaking streak, a sorrowful air that gives sustenance to the performance of George C. Scott as the grieving father, The Changeling is never embarrassed by its own simultaneous attempt to frighten its audience with tried-and-true haunted house stylings. It’s the best of both worlds: A ghost story with both emotional resonance and the panache to elicit shivers down the spine. And like communication from the world beyond, that’s always a remarkable thing.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.