The Changeling theatrical poster
The Changeling theatrical poster

The Changeling is a classic ghost story–heavy on atmosphere and suggestive chills, light on gore and graphic violence. That’s not really how I usually define a scary movie, but every so often I see The Changeling mentioned as one of those “must-see” films for horror buffs. Having finally watched it, I understand the recommendation–in many ways I found The Changeling much more frightening than its bloodier cousins. There are no flashy effects, just well-done, haunted house smoke, mirrors and misdirection leading us deep into the central mystery.

And with those simple tools, The Changeling creates a quiet, reliably creepy cinematic experience.

When The Changeling was released in March, 1979, the face of horror was already beginning to shift to the slasher-heavy pantheon of Jason, Michael, and Freddy. The low-key story instead revolves around the emotional toll of loss, greed, and betrayal–and with its ghosts and tragedy The Changeling shows that the old terrors still have plenty of power.

The film’s pacing is measured, driven by the characters’ interactions and underscored with the expected ghostly effects. And it shows a remarkable sensitivity to its characters’ emotional states. Men cry in this movie, because they love, and they get hurt. It is somewhat surprising to see, but brutally honest to watch.

George C. Scott, in a bad place
George C. Scott, in a bad place

George C. Scott is the star of the show. He plays John Russell, a grieving widower trying to move on with life after losing both his wife and daughter in a tragic accident. To escape his loss Russell leaves New York for Seattle, and ends up renting a sprawling old gothic mansion that has stood empty for the past dozen years.

Russell’s haunting begins almost immediately with small things–odd noises, doors closing, the feeling of another presence in the house. At times there is a loud metallic pounding that might be the pipes, or the furnace. Or not.

All the customary horror movie trappings appear in The Changeling (even the few trite ones that do nothing but move the plot along), yet they are so well done that their familiarity does not dull their impact. This movie is scary.

What's in the attic?
What’s in the attic?

There is classic ghost story foreshadowing–“That house is not fit to live in…It doesn’t want people”—and an assortment of familiar tropes. In addition to the noises, there is a hidden attic room, with everything shrouded in thick cobwebs and shadows. There are visions of murder, and a deep, dark secret involving sickly children and shrouded identities.

And there is of course a séance, because it wouldn’t be a proper haunted house story without one. It is one of the highlights of the film–underplayed, atmospheric, and terrifying for the restraint. There is no dramatic possession, no glowing ectoplasm or crashing furniture. The scene is calm, the medium asking questions in a dream-state, her wild automatic writing giving the answers: “help, help, help, John, help–”

There is a persistent wet greyness to the film, and in the cold, wet city scenes there is an attention given to the isolation of crowds. The overcast skies lend to the oppression, and encourage the underlying sadness of the story. The film relies heavily on watery imagery in its haunting, from the rainy Pacific Northwest setting to running faucets, sinks and tubs, a river and the ocean, a hidden well, and the persistent vision of a drowned child. There are also echoes from other films, with certain scenes reminding me of the empty apartment in Last Tango in Paris and of the sweeping Manderley mansion from Rebecca.

With all these fine details, The Changeling deserves its reputation as a top notch horror film. I could not keep from looking back over my shoulder as I watched it. Even though the effects are old-fashioned, without shock value or a single jump scare, the end result is chilling.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Green Room
Green Room

Green Room is a dark, brutal gem of a film. Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room debuted at Cannes in 2015 and received a limited release in the U.S. in April 2016. It is distinctly unsentimental, and its plot is stripped down to the bones. Still, it was able to make me care about its rebellious, nihilistic characters more than I first expected from such an austere presentation.

The premise is simple enough. Green Room details one harrowing night for a broke, marginal punk band who stumble onto a murder at an isolated neo-Nazi skinhead club after finishing their set. Pragmatism, idealism, and fanaticism are the drivers behind the plot, but the story does not get involved in any philosophical, good-vs-evil ideology. Instead it maintains a straightforward wrong place, wrong time vibe that allows all the characters to be (for the most part) just regular people. And I do mean all the characters. There is a surprisingly sympathetic view of certain of the white supremacists that shows them to be as human as anyone and not merely ideological bogeymen.

***

My first impression of the film was of gritty life, lit beautifully. Set in Oregon, Green Room makes good use of the natural landscape as a foil for what will come. The only soundtrack is human silence and the quiet sounds of nature interspersed with slashes of hardcore punk. The lack of a typical musical background makes the violence of the plot more jarring, and at the same time more mundane. There are no sonic cues—it just happens. But that sort of spare approach fits the simplicity of the storytelling well.

In the club
In the club

The dialogue is minimalist and natural, often no more than a handful of bitten-off words. One exchange, from early on:

“Boots and braces.”

“Skinheads.”

“There’s some at every show.”

“Don’t talk politics.”

And one from well into the action:

“Shouldn’t we be panicking?”

“I’m hungry.”

“I don’t want to die here with you.”

“So don’t.”

And when a band member offers the thin hope of, “We won’t all live, but, I don’t know, maybe we won’t all die,” it matters more than any inspirational call to rally.

Almost all the interactions are as succinct. No one gives speeches. What personal declarations there are, are kept remarkably brief. Character development is done with great economy and precious little romanticism.

The Ain’t Rights—the band at the center of the action– are the relative innocents in Green Room, and they are portrayed with all their rough edges intact. Anton Yelchin (in a reminder of the talent we lost) finds a great deal of nuance in his Pat, a punk with a soft heart and nerves of steel. Alia Shawkat as Sam still has the feral look she wore as Maeby on Arrested Development, but the humor is gone. She broadcasts a clear desperation to survive. Joe Cole as Reece displays a matter of fact brutality when cornered. Callum Turner’s Tiger is rattled and vulnerable.

The Ain't Rights
The Ain’t Rights

With the exception of the club owner, the neo-Nazi punks are a disorganized, disconnected threat. Eric Edelstein adds specific physical menace as the brutal Big Justin, while Macon Blair and Mark Webber put more sympathetic faces on characters that are normally caricatures. And Imogen Poots, especially, as Amber, plays her part with just the right note of damaged cynicism.

As the biggest star in the cast, Patrick Stewart is somewhat underutilized in his role as the cold-blooded club owner, Darcy. The sparse dialogue, chaotic action, and bleak settings do not give him quite enough support to fully flesh out his character. He adds more detail to the performance than is really required, and skews the mood with it. When Darcy shows up to take control of the disorder, Stewart gives the orders in rich, Shakespearean tones without even bothering to try for an American accent. It comes through as out of place and disconcerting. Steart is also tasked with delivering the only bit of melodrama to be found in Green Room—again, an out of place piece to his performance.

***

This is not a perfect movie, but it is riveting to watch the stress levels build. It is actually far too nerve-wracking to be what I’d call fun, because Green Room is as unrelentingly tense as anything I’ve ever seen. The situation the band finds itself in is grim and claustrophobic. The threat is real. Their actions are believable. The violence when it comes is graphic but not belabored, and more terrible for it. Green Room earns its keep as a serious thriller that gains a chokehold early on and never lets go. By all means, check it out.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Last night saw the premieres of two shows I’ve been waiting for: Westworld on HBO and Ash vs Evil Dead’s second season on Starz. The results were a mixed bag, but hope springs eternal.

***

HBO's Westworld
HBO’s Westworld

I have been looking forward to HBO’s take on Westworld for a long time. I have fond memories of being scared silly by Yul Brenner in the 1973 version of it. This Westworld was worth the wait. It unfolds in a sprawling, utterly realistic Wild West theme park where android ‘hosts’ provide a full immersion experience for their paying guests—‘newcomers’, as their programming dubs the human visitors. In the original film, the hosts were more traditionally robotic. The current approach gives us a truer AI, and with an ideological slant towards Battlestar Galactica rather than Ex Machina.

The new Westworld begins brilliantly, with the barest bones of the original film’s concept. The cast is top-notch, the writing superb, and the convolutions of the plot promise deep and strange directions to come. The pacing is precise, with loops and repetitions that become the story’s wheels within wheels.

There is much to think about, here, about the line between the real and the artificial. In what was possibly my favorite scene, a robot host visibly, visceraly adapts its programming to both follow its embedded script and incorporate discordant (and, what should have been unreadable) new information. And while Ed Harris is cold and creepy as the primary villain, he’s not nearly as terrifying as Yul Brenner was. But then again, I don’t think we’ve seen even a fraction of what his character is capable of. Next week can’t come soon enough.

***

Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action
Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action

On the other side of the spectrum, the return of Ash vs Evil Dead was disappointing. Season one successfully incorporated a semi-serious subplot. But as Ash vs Evil Dead starts season two, it seems to have given up too much of its crazy humor to retain its original charm. While the gore is still cheesy and exuberantly over the top, the show actually feels more like the original Evil Dead film, now—more threatening, less loopy fun. But there’s more missing than just silliness.

Part of the episode’s problem is that it felt very rushed, as if plot and character development had been purposefully sacrificed for incessant action. The end of last season saw Ash and company taking a truce and heading to Jacksonville, Florida. Season two starts with the immediate reversal of the road trip. By the first commercial they are back in Ash’s home town, where lots of random events happen—some campy, some supernatural, some just padding. But none of it is consistent. The episode is a mash up of too many ideas with not enough time allowed for them to gel into a reason to keep watching.

I’m hoping that episode two takes a deep breath and slows it down a little. There are more than enough plot elements to work with, and Ruby is still riding the line between nemesis and ally. The qualities that made the Evil Dead franchise so endearing are still there, if the show’s writers and producers are willing to pick out the strongest ones and run with them. Again.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!