Of all the holidays celebrated worldwide, no single day is loved by the Substream staff more than Halloween. With October’s arrival, the time has finally come to begin rolling out a slew of special features we have prepared in celebration of our favorite day.
31 Days Of Halloween is a recurring column that will run throughout the month of October. The goal of this series is to supply every Substream reader with a daily horror (or Halloween-themed) movie recommendation that is guaranteed to amplify your All Hallows’ Eve festivities. We’ll be watching every film the day it’s featured, and we hope you will follow along at home. Reader, beware, you’re in for a… spooky good time!
Day 8: The Changeling (1980)
Back in the ’80s, the theaters ran rampant with horror that became less about being psychological and more about shocking the viewers into submission. That isn’t to say every movie was like that, but there’s a throughline that exists in that decade filled with gore and schlock. Peter Medak’s The Changeling, a curious little horror film from 1980, kind of mirrors the genre’s best qualities from the prior years. It’s not entirely psychological, but it subscribes to the idea that most horror can hit by creating an environment and putting characters through that environment. The George C. Scott-starrer is a great, if not valuable reminder that beneath the layers of conceit and “showiness” that a lot of modern horror can take on, good stories and a firm grip on mood can conjure up plenty of scares.
John Russell (George C. Scott) and his family were vacationing in New England when the accident happened. A truck ran off the road and crashed right into his unsuspecting wife and child. After years of wallowing in grief, John finally gets the courage to start his work as a composer again. He even purchases a mammoth-sized, Victorian home to use as an isolated spot to work—that is until he hears loud banging noises and starts investigating into what may have happened prior to his stay. What’s dead may be better off buried, or so the old legend foretold.
Medak wasn’t and still isn’t relatively well-known for his work. While he may still be a gun-for-hire on a number of TV shows, the man made two nasty little genre pictures in a matter of two years—one of those being The Changeling and the other being The Krays, the 1990 thriller about The Kray Brothers’ violent run in the London underground. The latter also modeled itself after the horror genre, saying that the evil instilled in the Kray Brothers began in the womb. But anyway, from what I’ve seen, Medak has an impeccable eye for creating funhouses and reveling in watching characters drive themselves crazy by walking through them. John Russell’s creaky, Victorian home seemingly becomes slowly decrepit from the grief and regret that is ingrained in the wood; a grief that John can relate to; a grief that, when taken advantage of, can mean the possible downfall of whatever stability John has left.
There’s this subplot running concurrent to John’s experiences in the house where a New York senator (Melvyn Douglas) may know something about why the house is so haunted, having lived in it for an extended period of time at one point. That thread kind of reappears towards the end. Just go with it. The movie’s exploration of grief is always at war with this other thread.
What really struck me as “special” in The Changeling were the small, more simple things. You know, like a hammer striking a lock or a glass shattering on a wall. Medak shoots these little moments in slow-motion and with so much tact that you can’t help but believe that it isn’t a coincidence. The Changeling is all about things breaking—whether they be of the mental or psychological nature—and in this, Medak has Scott, one of cinema’s greatest performers, to break for him. Where the story kind of drops the ball on following up on its own themes, the performances and direction pick up the slack.
So, yeah, I recommend The Changeling for a frightening good time this Halloween season. It’s currently only available on DVD, but it’s worth it if you feel inclined to discover something new.