The Changeling and the importance of sound in horror movies

From the silent era to the present day, classic horror has lent heavily on sound. So what's so special about The Changeling?

The Changeling (1980) is a film that directors such as Martin Scorsese and Alejandro Amenabar have cited as a strong influence, and yet it doesn’t quite hold the same level of public recognition as, say, The Exorcist. Perhaps that’s because it’s a film where what you see really isn’t that important, so there’s no blood and guts, and very little in the way of special effects. Instead it’s all about the sounds.

Sound has always been a key ingredient of cinematic horror. It seems strange that we describe the earliest examples as silent films, because they were anything but silent. A guitarist played at the first public projection of films made by the Lumiere brothers in 1895, and this quickly evolved into composed scores, and sound effects provided by theatre organs that could emulate pouring rain, thunder, the gallop of horses, and many more aural effects.

Soon improvising the music and effects grew less popular, and written scores became common. For instance, Nosferatu (1922) had an original score by the German composer Hans Erdmann. The film was performed with live orchestral music upon its release, but no recording was ever made, and then all the copies of the film were meant to be destroyed due to copyright infringement. (We’re very lucky a few copies survived for us to enjoy today.) Much of that original score was lost, although parts of it have recently been reconstructed. What we can still hear of it now is more than an accompaniment to the film; it builds tension and adds to the dread we feel of the mysterious Count Orlok, using bells and sliding scales to crank up the tension.

The first ‘talkie’ horror movie was also only the second sound film made by Warner Bros – The Terror (1928), which used a Vitaphone sound disc, filled with effects such as creaky doors. So the importance of sound in establishing mood was never in doubt within the film industry, and it continues to work in such well-crafted films as The Babadook (2014).

If you want to build suspense, there’s nothing quite like a scary sound, and one of the very best films for proving that is The Changeling. Everything in that film revolves around the sounds you hear, and the plot primes you from the word go as to the important role sound is going to play. The first thing you hear is the sound of the wind blowing, before we even get to the action.

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Here’s the general outline:

John Russell (played by George C Scott) is a New York-based composer who, in the opening moments of the film, watches his wife and child being killed in a car accident. Then we move forward into the future, where he has taken a job at a school in Seattle and is trying to put his life back together. He rents an old house that has a music room, and he takes up composing again; but every morning there is a banging sound that can’t be explained, and soon it becomes clear that there is an entity in the house who wants to be heard.

So straight away we’re listening to sounds: the sounds that Russell is making on the piano, the sounds of the pipes banging, and then a growing host of effects ranging from the wind blowing, a music box playing, water splashing, and a ball bouncing. None of the sounds are scary by themselves. It’s the repetition of them that builds, along with the understanding that silence is also a great tool to invoke horror.

There’s nothing loud about The Changeling. There’s very little of what you might expect to find in a horror movie, such as screaming, crying, loud bangs or discordant sounds. The main performance matches this more measured approach; George C Scott doesn’t give in to fear, or panic, at any point. Instead he reacts in a subdued manner, and then attempts to find out what’s really happening, so that the mystery element is always prevalent. Some critics have found his performance a little too quiet for their liking, but I think he’s very believable, and he gives the audience the space to make their own decisions about what they’re seeing and hearing. Perhaps that’s why the film stays with you for a long time afterwards.

Nowhere is this better shown than during a séance sequence. The lead in to this part of the film is also really well handled, because the character of the medium is given some credibility, and then also keeps things low-key. She talks slowly and quietly to the entity in the house, and writes, scribbling on sheet after sheet of paper. The sound of the pencil on the paper dominates the scene. It’s a confusing noise that gets layered with voices, adding to the tension, and is brilliantly done.

It’s not that The Changeling is a strikingly original film; these ideas of a haunted house, a spooky room, a séance, are all well-worn territory. It’s more that it understands the role sound plays in lifting these tropes to a new level of dread, and that’s why it remains one of my favourite horror films. Usually when we watch a horror film we talk about turning off the lights and putting our hands over our eyes. Well, for The Changeling you don’t have to worry about those things. Just make sure you’ve got the volume control nearby, and remember that, along with all the best horror movies, this isn’t just a film you just watch. It’s a film you hear.

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