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.

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

The Loney
The Loney

The Loney is Andrew Michael Hurley’s first novel, and it is a wonder. As literary horror it is gothic and gorgeous, not so much frightening as vastly uneasy. It has been a long time since I’ve read a book in one long gulp, and I am tempted to open it and start again. Hurley’s use of language is hypnotic, and he is relentless in setting and keeping the dim, wet mood of the novel.

“If it had another name I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney—that strange nowhere between the Wyre and Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time…and look[ed] for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter” (3)

First published in Great Britain by Tartarus Press in 2014, The Loney’s first American edition came in May 2016 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In between those dates, the novel collected a number of awards and recognitions, with Britain’s Sunday Telegraph already declaring it “a modern classic”.

They may be on to something.

The unnamed narrator is almost absent from the story, even though it is told in first person as his own experience. His reactions and feelings are left mostly a blank, described but not dwelt on. This creates an emptiness at the heart of the story, rendering it as an almost clinical, if poetic, observation that results in very few answers.

Set primarily during a religious retreat in 1975, The Loney recalls the trend in sixties and seventies horror toward pagan witchcraft and Satanism as the root cause of terror. In many ways the novel shares the same thematic landscape as The Great God Pan, The Wicker Man, and assorted Hammer films like The Devil Rides Out. Here, though, Hurley uses the familiar horror tropes of witches, demonic infants, hostile locals, and ancient, secret religions as background rather than primary plot devices.

An ancient yew
An ancient yew

The Loney is filled with many portentous allusions and subtle misdirections. There are random, muddy hints that the narrator’s rigidly Catholic mother may be quite familiar with the undefined old ways. The storyunfolds during Easter, a Christian holiday with particularly strong ties to pagan rites. There are frequent mentions of yew trees, with their ancient connection to rebirth and immortality and astounding longevity, and ubiquitous place in churchyards. A troupe of Pace Eggers makes an appearance, whose performance varies from the norm and suggests uglier, older customs. There is a church chained shut, a decayed shrine, the mystery of a priest’s death. A nearby estate called Coldbarrow is said to be haunted by a witch, and its manor house, Thessaly, seems named after the battlefield where Greece’s old gods fought the new. The references are enough to bury a reader in history both real and mythological.

“I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along, It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way” (31)

Details and characters are introduced but not resolved, left hanging to intrude at intervals without confirming explanation. Striking and suggestive imagery is used but not integrated. Any sense of understanding is necessarily incomplete, because the fear The Loney generates is not from monstrousness but from uncertainty.

The Loney's uncertain terrain
The Loney’s uncertain terrain

And uncertainty becomes a moral and a mortal danger. Hurley’s real theme, as I understood it, is faith—its blindness, its loss, and its absence. The oppressive religiosity of the characters adds to the joyless proceedings, reinforcing the bleakness and alienation of the setting and the mood.

The narrator’s mother demonstrates a slavish, near fanatical adherence to ritual, to the point that ritual seems all that gives her faith. There are slippery narrative whispers that she and the other characters have lost their way, with their stubborn adherence to a faith that is not so pure as they would have it.

“The shrine seemed much further than everyone remembered, but eventually we arrived at a small gravel car park, deserted apart from a matress and some old car tyres. The little booth where an elderly attendant had once sold penny information leaflets was gone and there was only the wind and the sound of sheep far away on the hills” (209)

They do not want to admit the syncretic merging of a newer religion with an older, or that a religion changes at all. And that refusal to accept the uncertainty of changes–that God or no God is not so cut and dried, that there may also be a matter of God or Other Gods–makes the possibility of a loss of faith truly devastating.

Hurley does a compelling job at weaving all his many threads into a story that retains its mystery even after it ends. The Loney is convoluted, but without any coherent resolution—a puzzle with too many pieces gone. Yet it is so gorgeous, so evocative, that the incompleteness of it acts as a spur rather than a disappointment. I was left sated but wanting just one more bite. Time will tell if The Loney is truly a modern classic. But judging by the effect it has on me, I think it will be.

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!