Published Oct 30, 2013In the opening scene of Peter Medak's The Changeling, Composer John Russell (George C. Scott) witnesses the death of his wife and child in a vehicular accident from a pay phone across the road. Just prior, the family is experiencing vacation idyllically, frolicking in the snow, embodying the very idea of traditionalist heteronormative comfort. This juxtaposition of happiness and extreme tragedy frames this Canadian horror mystery with an overriding sense of existential grief; grief for the literal experience of loss and grief over a world where everything vital can be swept away in the blink of an eye.
This melancholia looms as John attempts to move on with his life, renting a Victorian-era style home from a historical society where he plans to focus on his craft. Medak, focusing on tone and atmosphere, limits the presentation of grief to body language and general disposition, taking the single moment of emotional indulgence—John crying himself to sleep—and turning it into an unexpected scare.
Since John's character and his trajectory of moving on with life in the face of unthinkable tragedy is, in itself, enough to sustain a narrative, the introduction of a ghostly element takes on a deeper meaning. Early, while attempting to play a familiar composition, Russell notices that a piano key isn't working. He becomes distracted and moves on, but we're left in the room where the key presses down by itself, making a reverberating sound that echoes throughout the home. It's here that we get a sense of how vast and empty the space in this home really is, just as it allows appreciation for the idea that there are unexplored nooks and secrets within this new space (both figuratively and literally). The house, like John Russell, has been abandoned but isn't finished fighting to find justice and meaning in this world.
Beyond establishing a consistent tone—one where the sound of water or the presence of a ball bouncing down the stairs takes on an air of unknown terror—The Changeling delivers an intriguing mystery. Rather than dwelling on the superficial aspects of a haunting, this low budget Canadian Genie Award winner attempts to humanize and interpret the motivations of the ghost, giving our protagonist a purpose while doing so.
It, much like Jack Clayton's The Innocents, is rare in its ability to blend genres. Typically, effective chillers have a facile mystery or vice versa. The idea that Jack, a man that has lost his family, is ultimately helping a ghost that never had a loving father figure is a bit trite. But there's no condescending catharsis or optimistic sense of reconciliation for either party. Instead, the details of the mystery unfold with utmost intrigue, often stemming specifically from the tautly rendered sequences of tension, leaving the characters acting out of habit and necessity by helping each other indulge in a mutual rage and sadness.
The Changeling screens at 11pm on October 31st, 2013 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Canadian Open Vault Hallowe'en double bill. Ginger Snaps, the wildly entertaining werewolf movie about two sisters coping with bodily and ideological changes, screens beforehand at 8pm. (Pan-Canadian Film Distributors)