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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manhattanghoststory
A Manhattan Ghost Story, 1984 cover art

As I mentioned in my previous post, my first encounter with the late T.M. Wright was his 1984 novel A Manhattan Ghost Story. I picked it up as a teenager, thinking it was just another cheap horror novel. I was wrong. It treated the dead differently than anything else I’d read before—not as monsters, but as damaged people trying to get by. The old physical copy of the book is long gone, but the mood of the story has always stayed with me. It is a horror novel without horror. It is sad, instead of scary, thoughtful instead of graphic. Sentimental. Wistful. Messy, like life.

In many ways A Manhattan Ghost Story is an earlier rendition of the stylistic and conceptual quirks found in The Last Vampire. But while the two novels are thematically related, they look at the central idea of the lingering, still-wounded dead from opposite sides of the veil. I think because it has a living protagonist, A Manhattan Ghost Story is a more direct narrative. But it still repeats itself at frequent intervals because of the habits and patterns the ghosts are caught in. It is also inconclusive. It begins and wanders on to an end but never truly resolves—a difficult trait in a novel.

Still, A Manhattan Ghost Story may have been Wright’s most commercially successful work. It was optioned several times (with the rights last purchased by Disney in 2006), but in the end it was never filmed. Which may be for the best. The prose is straightforward and the settings mundane, but this is a strange, slow, dreamy, and at times blunt novel built on layers of perception rather than on action. What happens is often just repetitive motion, fragments of lives remembered and replayed on a loop, because so many of Wright’s characters are already dead.

In A Manhattan Ghost Story, Wright’s POV character Abner Cray receives the unwanted gift of seeing ghosts. Abner doesn’t realize it until after he has met and fallen in love with the ghost of his best friend’s murdered girlfriend. The novel follows Abner as he learns, painfully, to distinguish the living from the dead when he has already been drawn too deeply into their world.  As Abner explains, “I have learned that the living are not very different from the dead.  And I have learned that you often need a very good eye, indeed, to tell the difference” (50).

Here, Wright’s ghosts are physical and social and superficially have agency—but they exist within narrow parameters, able to create an illusion of free-will while repeating bits of their own pasts in a quest for resolution. The ghosts themselves are haunted. And this makes any interaction with them unnerving:

“‘Unfinished business,’ that’s what my mom says.”  He sounded much more petulant, now—a little angry, in fact.  ‘You want a puppy?  You can have one cheap.  Two dollars.’  I looked back at the boy… and the boy was staring up at me and giving me his   heart-rending plaintive smile again.  ‘Hey mister, you want a puppy?’ he asked. ‘You can have one cheap.  Two dollars.’ I didn’t answer. I had begun to have an understanding of what exactly was happening to me, and of the world I’d stumbled into” (123).

The world Wright creates for the dead is as full and busy as the world of the living, and as complicated, because in many aspects they aren’t very different: “Pettiness survives.  And jealousy.  And pretentiousness, fear, loneliness, depression.  I have learned that the living haven’t yet cornered the market on misery” (135). But there is more to it than that: “…the dead sing, and laugh, and sit up, look around, cry, want. And they’re confused, too.  Confused and lonely.  And they hurt.  And, at last, they come apart and go off to someplace else” (212). Essentially, Wright’s ghosts experience an incomplete and abbreviated version of their lives, existing as their own echoes before fading out.

It is finally that coming apart that brings A Manhattan Ghost Story to its indeterminate end. Abner may love a ghost, and she may in her way love him, too. But none of that can keep her anchored in the world: “I am coming apart,” she said.  “We come apart.  We all come apart … We leave.  We go away” (205). It is the ultimate unfinished business.

T.M. Wright
T.M. Wright

It is the falling apart, I think, the going away, that is the saddest aspect of A Manhattan Ghost Story. While Wright’s last vampire outlived his wants, these ghosts have not. They still desire what they had in life, even if it is messy and incomplete. Even if it is always unfinished. In that, they are indeed very much like the rest of us.

Thank you for that, Mr. Wright. And, goodbye.

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!