by Brad C. Hodson As horror fans, we’re all intimately familiar with the tropes of the haunted house film. The massive, darkly lit house that’s sat abandoned for years. The protagonist with a soul-crushing tragedy in their past. The creepy dead thing in the tub. The murder mystery that serves as the reason for the haunting. And, let’s not forget, the ball that is tossed down stairs or rolls on its on.
But did you know that most of these well worn tropes trace back to one film?
While there are elements of Peter Medak’s chilling 1980 masterpiece in films that came before it, “The Changeling” created such a powerful atmosphere as to cement each of its parts on the genre forever. And the whole, as always, is greater than the sum of its parts. “The Changeling” is a damned creepy film. So creepy we can forgive it for introducing the ball on the stairs gag. That gag, by the way, while often imitated, has never been equaled. Part of its power lies in the beautifully haunting cinematography, but an equal amount can be credited to George C. Scott’s reaction to the thing.
Scott, known to most filmgoers for his over the top performances in films like “Patton” and to horror fans for his turn as Lt. Kinderman in William Peter Blatty’s criminally underrated “Exorcist III,” brings such a unique complexity to the character of John Russell that we the viewer can’t help but be taken on a roller coaster ride of emotions. From the scene that opens with Russell weeping into his pillow only to be interrupted by the mysterious pounding that echoes through the house every morning to his Patton-esque anger when he yells “You goddamned son-of-a-bitch, what do you want from me?” at the presence in the house, we’re given a glimpse into the kind of toll living in a haunted house might take on someone.
As mentioned before, the cinematography plays a powerful role in the film. John Coquillon creates a claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere that hearkens back to films like “The Innocents” and the Robert Wise directed “The Haunting.” I was lucky enough to see a recent screening of this in Hollywood and, projected onto the big screen in a darkened theater, the effect of the lighting and camera work is immediate and lingers long after the film is over. Director Peter Medak was on hand for a Q&A. In addition to hilarious anecdotes about Scott (a crowd favorite being how the actor had refused to come out of trailer on the film “Hardcore” until director Paul Shrader promised to never direct another film), he discussed the camera choices in depth. He revealed subtle placements and movements that I had never consciously noticed before, such as placing the camera at the height of a child when the ghost is present. This type of in-depth planning seems to be missing from so many modern horror films and, unfortunately, I think the genre often suffers for it.
If you haven’t seen it years, I highly recommend sitting down and revisiting “The Changeling.” And, if you’ve never seen it before, what are you doing reading this article? Go watch it. Now. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
Brad C. Hodson is a screenwriter and novelist living in Los Angeles. He enjoys peanut butter, lifting heavy things, and writing about himself in third person. For more information, please visit www.brad-hodson.com