Monday, November 16, 2009

Morbid Fascination: A Look at Changeling and Horror In General

Damn it. Just when I thought it was safe to leave my house. Just when I thought I had regained my self-control and defeated the hellish fears that keep me tossing and turning night after night. Just when I thought Halloween was behind me….Clint Eastwood came out of the shadows and brought me a present. One that pressed all the right buttons and shook open the self-destructive, masochistic part of me that likes to read Stephen King before bed and stays up until 3 AM watching the Criminal Minds mini-marathon every weekend. The part that is paranoid and agoraphobic and will watch or read anything that has to do with Leopold and Loeb. The part with a healthy (?) morbid fascination.

I didn’t even intend to watch a movie last night. I had plenty of work to do and plenty of good intentions, but after the first five minutes, I was hooked. I had actually wanted to see Changeling in theaters, but missed it due to procrastination and lack of an interested companion. Judging from the trailers, it looked like it had been made for me: a true crime story set during the 1920’s with a title that referenced folklore (a changeling being an otherworldly child—sometimes demonic or unruly—left in place of a human child stolen away by supernatural forces, usually fairies). Though it delivered on all those fronts, I was not prepared for just how disturbing it would be. Or how engrossing.

Changeling tells the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother living in 1928 Los Angeles. When her nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) disappears, Christine enlists the help of the corrupt LAPD to find him. After five months, she receives word that Walter is alive and well and on his way home. However, one look is all Christine needs to know the boy they’ve brought back isn’t her son. A harrowing struggle against the Powers That Be ensues as Christine sets out to discover what really happened to Walter. This alone would make for an unsettling movie, but halfway through, we get a shocking twist that opens the door to regions much darker than I expected.

Changeling has a lot going for it. Clint Eastwood, first of all. The movie evokes 1920’s L.A. perfectly with fantastic costumes, sets, and music. Angelina Jolie is excellent as Christine Collins, at once timid and fiercely strong as only a mother protecting her child can be. She’s not Superwoman; she just wants her son back and consequently, she becomes a believable hero. There isn’t a bad performance in the cast. To reveal the best two besides Jolie’s would be to give away important plot elements, but you will know them when you see them (unless you disagree with me, of course). I had no problems with the length (two hours and twenty minutes) but the movie did suffer from The Return of the King’s multiple ending disease, including a slightly manipulative five minute tack-on that didn’t do anything except depress me and create an unnecessary plot hole. Also it’s very much a white hat-black hat story and now and then, I felt like some of the characters could have used a few more shades of gray, especially the downright evil police captain (Jeffrey Donovan). Overall, however, the good far outweighed the bad.

From the arrival of the changeling on, the movie plays out like a cross between a Kafka story and the grimmest of Grimms’ fairy tales, all the while forcing you to remember that you’re watching a true story. I had to cover my ears and close my eyes more than once and more than once, I asked myself, “Why are you watching this? How could you possibly be enjoying this?” But I did enjoy it. After all, five minutes in, I couldn’t shut it off and barely moved for the next two and a half hours. But how? Why? I ask myself this same question every time I get caught in the middle of a particularly grisly Criminal Minds episode or watch Rope for the umpteenth time or sit down to a TV dinner with the folks and 48 Hour Mystery. I recently asked my mother why she and my dad were so permissive about what I watched as a kid when they were so overprotective about everything else. She said, “I guess we wanted you to be aware of the dark stuff.” Well, thanks Mom. As a result, I grew up to be the most paranoid person I know. But it’s not as if they sat me down and forced me to watch this stuff. Much of it I sought out. After all, I used to watch Law and Order and Investigative Reports when I was supposed to be asleep and still have a bad habit of exposing myself to scary things right before bed. Considering how easily scared I was growing up, it amazes me that I developed such a strong interest in the macabre so early on. But then again, maybe it’s not so surprising.

I’ve often seen the horror genre (including the truly scary thrillers and crime movies) as a kind of therapeutic tool. These movies allow us to step back and watch our fears played out at a distance. We get to examine them and in so doing, try to understand them. The best horror / thriller / crime movies have great, thought-provoking things to say about humanity. 28 Days Later, a movie where the human beings frightened me ever so much more than the zombies, comes to mind. Or Silence of the Lambs where the smartest, most enjoyable character in the movie is also a cannibal. This isn’t to say all horror movies make profound statements about human nature, but they do have that ability. Perhaps I latched onto the dark stuff as a kid because I was so easily scared and wanted to understand why. Also fear is thrilling and these movies allow us to experience that thrill in a safe setting where we have control.

One thing is certain. My mother will never see Changeling if I have anything to do with it. She still tells me not to talk to strangers when I leave the house; this movie would probably make her lock me in a tower. On top of that, it has made me pity my hypothetical children even more. Thanks to Changeling, I will probably call a baby-sitter before I leave to get the paper in the morning.


  1. I only sort of wanted to see this movie before, but now I really want to see it, thanks for the great review! And have you read Yeats' poem "The Stolen Child"? Its sort of about changelings - fairies come and steal children. Its a beautiful poem, but also so creepy and frightening. I totally understand why this stuff is so scary.

  2. Thanks! It's playing on HBO this month so look out for it. I'd love somebody to stand in the darkness with.

    I love "The Stolen Child." It reads like a kidnapper's lullaby. "Come away, O human child/.../With a faery hand in hand,/ For the world's more full of weeping that you can understand." Beautiful but so creepy, as you said.

    Childe Roland is a great fairy tale about the fairies stealing children, but it also is so creepy, including classic details like if you ate the food in Fairy Land or spoke to a fairy without killing him, you were stuck there. And many of these stories were inspired by children being kidnapped by "rough outsiders." It's amazing that fairies have a reputation for being such harmless creatures, when in folklore, they're actually really scary.

    Thanks again for reading, m'dear.