Most movie nerds participate in some kind of annual ritual every October, whether it be attempting to cram in (at least) 31 new-to-them horror films over the course of the month or just slightly, generally shifting their viewing habits towards #spookycontent. My own personal project this year was to clear out my stack of unwatched horror DVD & Blu-ray purchases that have been gathering dust since last Shocktober, something I unexpectedly accomplished halfway into the month. That kind of single-genre overload can be a fun, celebratory way to commemorate one of the calendar’s best holidays (second only to Mardi Gras), but it also has a way of flattening the distinguishing details of individual titles. Catching up with a somber, stylistically restrained classic during these annual horror binges is always somewhat risky, as they’re often drowned out by the zanier, more attention-grabbing films you bookend them with. All of that is to say that I finally watched the beloved ghost story The Changeling this month and I did not get much out of the experience. Despite its reputation, I found it merely okay.
A lonely music professor—played with a severe grimace by George C. Scott—grieves a recent tragedy in his family by renting out an Old Dark House near the university where he works and haunting its hallways all by his lonesome. While sulking around this echoing, dusty Gothic palace, he uncovers another familial tragedy from decades past: the murder of a young disabled boy whose ghost becomes his roommate and partner in crime. The professor may not be able to heal the wounds of the abrupt tragedy that wrecked his own family life, but he can at least distract himself from the pain by pursuing justice for this drowned ghost-boy. The resulting vigilante mission is one of somber self-reflection and unexpected political intrigue, pitting the pitiful old man against corrupt politicians and the even more intimidating biddies of The Historical Preservation Society. A few haunting images of underwater phantasma, flaming staircases, and animated wheelchairs occasionally cut through the oppressively quiet, lonely misery that hangs over the house, but for the most part everything remains excessively morbid & low-key.
The other canonized title that The Changeling reminded me of the most was The Exorcist. That may read as a high compliment, but what I mean is that I found it an admirable drama but a boring horror film, unable to see the Exquisite Classic it is in others’ eyes. Weirdly enough, I do get a huge kick out of The Exorcist III, which also stars George C Scott. Go figure. It’s possible that had I seen The Changeling outside of the annual cram-session horror binge of Shocktober rituals, it might have made more of an impact. However, I can’t make too many excuses for it in that context, considering that my favorite new-to-me discovery this month was the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which isn’t exactly a gag-a-minute riot. Regardless, The Changeling is a film I can’t muster much enthusiasm for outside discussing it in terms of this year’s Halloween season viewing docket. In that spirit, here’s a picture of what my to-watch stack looked like at the start of the season and a best-to-worst ranked list of how much I enjoyed each title.
- The Haunting (1963)
- The Descent (2005)
- Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)
- Millennium (1989)
- Limbo (1991)
- The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)
- The Strangler of the Swamp (1946)
- Pacific Heights (1990)
- Pumpkinhead (1988)
- Holy Virgin Vs. The Evil Dead (1991)
- Body Snatchers (1993)
- The Changeling (1980)