Rated R for kid murder and kid death. I mean, there's other death, but the most memorable and gutsy death involves kid death. It's really tame for an R-rated movie, considering that the PG-13 horror movie exists in today's culture. But I can see the idea of this movie being R for 1980 as a real thing. It's only when you think about Poltergeist as a PG film that things get a little wonky. But it is kind of adorable what is considered a hard R for 1980. It might be a bigger commentary on America than anything else to consider a movie like this to be R-rated. Or the fact that I even question a movie about brutal murders to be something of PG faire. Regardless...
DIRECTOR: Peter Medak
This movie is a classic, right? I feel like this is one of those beloved horror movies of yesteryear. It's the kind of horror movie that really appeals to the film nerd. But part of me might be projecting on the film because I absolutely dig the poster art. That might make me a bad film blogger, but that's something I've never denied in the four years that I've written this blog. (Also, I know that I watched most of Poltergeist two years ago, but did I watch the whole thing enough to have written an entry? These are the random thoughts that interrupt the flow of what-should-be a naturally progressing blog entry.) I knew nothing of this movie outside of the fact that it had the wheelchair on the poster and that people treat it with a modicum of respect. When I saw that this was a movie about General Patton fighting oogetty-boogetties, well, that ended up just being a treat.
Listen, The Changeling is a perfectly fine movie. I'll not complain about it. Heck, I keep throwing Poltergeist in here as a comparison mainly because it would make a fine double feature with The Changeling. There's something about the older haunted house movies that really scratch a pretty exciting itch. I can't help but make the comparison to the gothic novel that we kind of got a resurgence with when it came to the horror movies of the '70s and '80s. I'm going to be writing about a feeling of synergy that I can't quite put into words. As much as I still appreciate a good haunted house story set in the contemporary era, there's something about setting a story in 1980 and coupling it with an evil home that makes it worth while.
I think it is the idea of the cell phone and the creature comforts of today that don't mesh quite well against the spiritual realm. Maybe it is because we are inclined to turn to science in the contemporary era when the characters in a 1980s horror movie just instantly dive into the realm of fantasy and the afterlife. Don't get me wrong, John Russell first looks at the pipes to explain the goofy noises. But he never really has that stage of trying to capture the ghost using EMF or whatever newer films tend to lean on. There is no internet scene. Heck, I have to imagine that George C Scott probably felt pretty good that he was using the library's microfilm database to look up the history of the house. It had to feel like the future compared to the halcyon days of Vincent Price and The House on Haunted Hill.
What this all inadvertently does is make the mood of The Changeling a powerhouse. It really doesn't have to be that good of a movie. In fact, there are a handful of things in this movie that are plain ol' dumb. But it is that atmosphere of 1980s grit fighting the macabre history of the early 1900s that really just works. 80 years is a long time, but it isn't such a long time that it can't interact with the world of today. Sure, it kind of goes off the rails with the senator plot. I really wanted to like the senator plot. The really great haunting movies, for me, are the ones where the protagonist has a chance to escape the fate of the house by investigating the history and putting the ghost at rest. Really, it's a fantasy-led detective story that should ultimately come full circle to the events that are happening to the cast of heroes. This is what made The Ring so great at the time. Maybe it is the feeling of being kind of antiquated (although I loved The Ring the most when it first came out).
But when The Conjuring movies do what they do right, it is usually because it is all old timey. That feeling of otherworldliness is often lost on today's society. This is me sounding like a sad old man who isn't even 40 yet, but everything now is about the Internet and making things bigger and scarier. The idea of the gothic horror is kind of passé for our culture. Again, we can only revisit it through nostalgia.
But I suppose I should talk about what doesn't really work in The Changeling as well. See, it's a perfectly fine movie...if you shut your brain off. (Trust me, I'm very okay with doing this. I'm not saying The Changeling is for dumb people. But the movie asks you to go along with the ride and simply accept a lot.) John Russell has a traumatic inciting incident. He has the best family in the world. I love how the story needs for Russell's car to breakdown while simultaneously showing the family at their best. So instead of having a complaining family pushing a station wagon down a snowy road, they're somehow enjoying it. Honestly, this family goes from shoving a multi-ton (I think?) vehicle in crappy weather to instantly transition to giggly snowball fight. It's pretty hilarious and I instantly didn't take the movie seriously. They had to get wrecked at the height of John's happiness, but that accident needed to have an element of John blaming himself.
And for a while, it really seemed like John's internal conflict was getting over the death of his family. After all, Joseph really plays up the dead daughter haunting by having the ball constantly remind him of the death of his little girl. But the second he finds out that the haunting isn't done by his daughter, his family really takes a back seat. Now, we could call this character growth. But there isn't a direct tie between moving on from his grief and purging the house of this damned spirit. (Not like I'm swearing there, although it kind of works both ways.) Then there's the mislead. There's the girl who dies by the coal cart. I got invested in the girl who dies by the coal cart.
Now, I'm going to play devil's advocate here. The girl who dies from the coal cart in 1909 could act as a cautionary tale. If John decides to ignore Joseph, he could end up like the little girl in 1909. But I'm going to fight that reading of the story because, like John's family, the little girl never comes up again. And the movie devotes so much time to this story. John discovers the little girl's backstory when he finally accepts the call of the goddess and continues into the attic. The reward for his courage is the girl's story. That story needs to have value. Instead, it is just this side story that ends up being a complete red herring in the narrative.
All this comes down to the fact that this is really a short story about a senator who profited from the death of a little boy that he never met. There's not a lot of meat there. I mean, the meat that we got is good. It's like quail. What story there is actually is fun and impressive. It's an interesting and deep melodrama about privilege and corrupt government. Okay, but it doesn't say much about it. Also, we never get the full notion that the senator knows what's up. Sometimes the movie implies that he knows all about the handoff. Sometimes, he can't believe his father would be capable of murdering a little handicapped kid in a bathtub and seems mortified by the accusation. It's all very muddy. But all we know is that he goes up the stairs of a burning house to confront Joseph...
...and Joseph doesn't really care what John did. That's a weird moral of the story. Joseph has tried to tell his tale to all of the inhabitants of the house. John actually responds and does his best to remedy this situation and put Joseph's soul to rest. (I just realized I'm complaining that the demon is being a little unfair at this point.) John takes a major religious and philosophical leap to get Joseph's soul free from the house. But each time that John returns, the house just gets more aggressive. Was John supposed to kill the senator? The movie kind of implies that's what Joseph is mad about when he returns. John presented all of the information to the senator and gave him all of the evidence and then hoped for the best. Yeah, from a ghost's perspective, that might be a lame decision. But I would argue that John killing the senator would only evoke more rage from Joseph. I suppose that there's a far-fetched scenario where John leads the senator to the house, yells "Surprise" coupled with an expletive, and then allows Joseph to rip him apart. But that really makes John the bad guy of the piece.
But all of that is more of a commentary on the genre. There's always a rush to unravel the mystery of the ghost and the ghost rarely seems to be at peace about that investigation. Maybe it is because ghosts are insane or whatever canon that particular movie follows, but I honestly believe it is because that's what we want. We want our third act to be bannisters on fire and old-timey wheelchairs trying to murder people. And it works. That's what The Changeling is. It's a goofy old horror movie that ticks a lot of boxes, despite not having a ton of content. I enjoyed it, but I also don't know how much I could put it in the "great" column.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.