In one's attempt to travel backwards in time and find the "Ultimate Forgotten Halloween Horror Film," you're bound find one or two gems in a mixed bag of other movies ranging from the so-so-ho-hums to the outright stinkers. I'm thinking that The Changling fits into the latter rather than the former.
It's too bad, too, because it starts off as a chilling blast, rather reminiscent of The Haunting (1963, Robert Wise), a coldly creepy film that I'll stop right now and mention: if you haven't seen The Haunting, then that is your UFHHF. It is arguably the medium's finest ghost story in history.
But if The Changeling wanted to imitate The Haunting, it only wanted to do so for thirty or forty minutes. For that amount of time it rides the tails of that film well: Banging pipes and stuck notes on the piano, dreamy sequences of a drowned boy in the tub and a door that slowly creaks open by itself -- these things hearken back to Wise's masterpiece in well-done and similar fashion. A frightening mood is created in the mystery of what's not shown and in the fear-inducing sounds (a topic I'll delve more into when I sit down to write about Eraserhead next week). Sometimes it's best to let the viewer's imagination run wild, and that's accomplished with flair in the first half of The Changeling.
The problem, then, is in the second half explanation, which rather feels like an old Christian rock song in which the third verse makes certain it straightens out all the problems the writer created in the first two. The mystery is gone, some of it even beginning to feel like algebra, and the sound has lost its impressionable weight; the clanging and banging that takes place in the second half of the film lacks any curiosity that the first half generated. The ghost begins acting a little strange, too, and the people trying to help the ghost are kind of stuck in the middle. A lot of the details of the riddle's answers feel cheap. Then the ghost gets really really mad -- again for what reason, we can't precisely tell, although it is a child ghost, so maybe it's some kind of adolescent temper tantrum -- and he wipes out his place of residence, the only place where there are people who want to help him, the place where they live, too.
Not a whole lot of sense is made in the second half of the film, and the story's choice to leave the house and pursue a public figure -- the guy the ghost is REALLY mad at -- is awful.
Of course George C. Scott brought an excellent performance to a film that could have been better. His presence did lift the material, and I think one could say that about quite a few of his films.
There are so many films, especially in horror, that stack the deck in the front only to fail to deliver in the end. They're the most frustrating kind of film because you don't really want to pick on them after you initially liked them in the beginning. The Changeling is one such film. It deserves to be picked on harder than I'm picking on it here, but I just can't pick any harder.
Out of the gate, it could have been great, but I took the bait and it waffled.