When it comes to horror, it’s the intangible that we find terrifying. It’s what you can’t see – or, in a slasher or monster flick, can’t fairly fight – that opens the door to let the real nightmares in. It’s helplessness that frightens us, not a hulking form or a machete.
That’s why a film like “The Changeling” is, in my humble opinion, more upsetting than a slasher or torture porn. t not only scares us by what we can’t see – a trapped, yet vengeful spirit – but it also places us in the unique position of being the helpless child murdered by his greedy father. It’s difficult to watch “The Changling” and not feel the helpless terror of the sickly Joseph Carmichael, held under water, unable to fight back.
Actually, “The Changeling” is a triple punch, because it plays heavily on the grief of John Russell (George C. Scott) who could do nothing but watch his beloved family brutally killed in front of him. It’s this sorrow that presumably leaves him open to the cries of Joseph, who wants someone to care about him and his fate. Joseph wants justice, and John wants (needs) to someone to save.
Of course, the film offers plenty of jump scares too, all in the classic haunted house vein, and no less effective for being rather expected. There’s the famous scene with the Victorian wheelchair (a device right up there with a baby carriage for instant chills!), the ball, Joseph’s disembodied voice, and plenty of slamming doors and creaking boards. Shrug it off as simplistic all you want to, but this is the stuff we take haunted ghost tours for, hoping to experience for ourselves. Again, it’s the unseen that is what unsettles us, and by offering up haunts that could (theoretically) happen, you’re left far more on the edge of your seat than if it was riddled with CGI and bloody hatchets.
“The Changeling” is a mature kind of horror, playing best if you’re older, and more vulnerable to its tragic atmosphere. Few things punch you in the gut like the murder of a child , and without getting preachy, “The Changeling” uses what we can all agree is real evil. Hellbeasts and demons are all well and cool in a horror flick, but can you truly get more sinister than a greedy, grasping father and politician? How can Freddy Krueger or Pinhead be more hideous than not only seeing your loved ones killed, but living with the memory? John Russell would crave the death one of the big screen butchers would provide, but he’s stuck in a sort of numb limbo, waiting for absolution. Think too, of poor Joseph, unloved and murdered by those who should have loved and protected him?
It’s tough to call any film the scariest film ever made, but the themes and tone of “The Changeling” argue for it having a high ranking on any list. It’s truly everything that scares us in one creaking package, with a spinning Victorian wheelchair for color.