The Daily Stream: The Changeling Channels The Terror Of Grief

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "The Changeling"

Where You Can Stream It: Shudder

The Pitch: Composer John Russell (George C. Scott) is left devastated after the death of his young daughter and wife in a tragic roadside accident. Four months later, he uproots what's left of his life in New York and moves to Seattle for a teaching position at the local college. While there, he rents a large Victorian mansion where he can live and work, focusing on his compositions. Not long after he moves in, strange things start happening: a piano key mysteriously fails, doors start creaking open, and a rhythmic banging noise starts to wake him up every morning at the exact same time. 

John is roped into solving a decades-old mystery and won't stop until he gets to the bottom of what's haunting the house, and him.

Why It's Essential Viewing

Equal parts classic ghost story and murder mystery, the 1980 Canadian film from screenwriters William Gray and Diana Maddox and directed by Peter Medak is, in this humble writer's opinion, one of the best horror movies ever made. Everything is executed simply, elegantly, and with thoughtful deliberation, from the exposition to its deeply haunting scares.

Its legacy lives on in contemporary horror movies like "Insidious," "The Conjuring," and "The Ring." It may well have influenced Koji Suzuki, the author of the 1991 novel on which "Ringu" and Gore Verbinski's iteration are based. Despite its empathetic approach to ghost stories, it's often been overlooked and undervalued. On its initial release, Roger Ebert wrote:

If it only took craftsmanship to make a haunted house movie, "The Changeling" would be a great one. It has all the technical requirements, beginning with the haunted house itself... [the film] does have some interesting ideas... But it doesn't have that sneaky sense of awful things about to happen. Scott makes the hero so rational, normal and self-possessed that we never feel he's in real danger; we go through this movie with too much confidence.

He wasn't entirely wrong. He did, however, manage to completely miss the point.

What sets "The Changeling" apart from, say, "The Exorcist," for example, or other horror movies involving the paranormal, is its remarkably human core. The entirety of the plot and story is rooted in personal tragedy and the way we as human beings cope with grief and loss. In this case, a grieving father who's lost his daughter and the spirit of a murdered little boy. The movie came out over 40 years ago, so you'll forgive me for not giving you any spoiler warnings.

The point is that the impact of the film isn't in the usual sense of dread and fear for the safety of the protagonist. This isn't "Halloween," "Jaws," or even "The Omen." Rather, the horror resides in the human potential for malice and cruelty coupled with the necessity of grieving as part of the healing process. It uses grief as a conduit for horror, weaponizing lovely memories or keepsakes into the things that can tear you apart ... if you let them.

"The Changeling" is a beautiful exploration of the ravages of grief and sorrow that begs the viewer to recognize the choice we can make: we can lash out in anger and be consumed by it, or we can heal and learn to live with our grief in a healthy way.