"The Changeling," a 1980 horror film directed by Peter Medak, is often regarded as a classic in the horror genre because it incorporates elements and techniques that are associated with classic and timeless horror storytelling.
There are plenty of surprises in this film, but my favorite part is its pacing. The Changeling relies on a slow and deliberate pacing to build tension and suspense. Classic horror often focuses on psychological horror and the fear of the unknown, which is achieved through a gradual and methodical buildup of terror.
Classic horror frequently deals with the inner workings of the human mind, often with an element of the supernatural. "The Changeling" is based on a real-life paranormal case, which adds an extra layer of authenticity to the story. It follows a traditional narrative structure, which is often found in classic horror storytelling.
Classic horror sometimes leaves certain elements ambiguous, allowing viewers to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. This can make the horror more potent because it engages the audience's own fears and interpretations. The film opens with a tragic car accident in which John Russell (played by George C. Scott) loses his wife and daughter. The circumstances surrounding the accident are mysterious and unexplained, leaving the audience to wonder if there's more to the story. John Russell moves into a historic and imposing mansion to escape his grief. The mansion is shrouded in ambiguity from the beginning, with its eerie atmosphere, strange noises, and hidden rooms. The mansion's history and the supernatural events that occur within its walls remain largely unexplained.
Just like another example of the ambiguous buildup of terror is "The Shining". The Overlook Hotel, where most of the story takes place, becomes a character in itself. The isolation, vast, empty spaces, and strange silence create a growing sense of dread and psychological unease. The main character, Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson), experiences a gradual descent into madness, driven by the malevolent forces within the hotel. As he succumbs to the supernatural influences and his own inner demons, the audience is taken on a terrifying journey into the unknown.
Another trick to add to the slow-burning pacing is the Gradual Revelation of Secrets. The plot unfolds slowly as John Russell uncovers clues about the mansion's dark history. While exploring the mansion, John discovers a hidden room filled with items that hint at a dark history. A red rubber ball and a wheelchair become key elements in the mystery. These objects, their significance, and their connection to the past are revealed slowly, piece by piece.
Another similar plot is the whereabouts of Historical Documents and Photographs. As John delves deeper into the mansion's history, he uncovers a collection of historical documents and photographs hidden within the mansion. These documents provide crucial clues about the people who lived in the house before and their tragic experiences, adding layers to the overarching mystery.
Throughout "The Changeling," the gradual revelation of these interconnected secrets adds depth to the story, keeping the audience engaged and intrigued. The film's climax involves a shocking revelation that ties together the secrets of the mansion's past, the tragic history of the young boy, and John Russell's personal loss. This revelation uncovers the full scope of the supernatural forces at play in the house.
Instead of relying on jump scares or graphic violence, the film uses subtle and unsettling moments to create fear. In one of the film's most iconic scenes, John Russel is alone in the mansion when he hears the sound of a rubber ball bouncing down the staircase. He follows the sound to find a child's ball inexplicably moving on its own. This moment is unsettling because it defies logic and introduces a supernatural element without overtly terrifying visuals.
Another great example is the use of the record player: John listens to an old phonograph recording of a séance in which a child's voice is heard, and the voice leaves a chilling message. The way the voice disrupts the recording and its eerie message adds to the sense of a spectral presence without directly showing a ghostly figure.
These scenes illustrate how subtle, psychologically unsettling moments create fear. The film builds an atmosphere of dread, allowing the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps and intensify the horror, making it a classic example of slow-burning and psychologically driven horror.