The Changed has its world première at FrightFest 2021
“Nobody seems to care about anything lately, good or bad,” comments Mac (Jason Alan Smith) to his neighbour and best friend Bill (Tony Todd) as they enjoy a morning coffee outside Mac’s house at the beginning of Michael Mongillo‘s The Changed. “I think people are finally waking up,” suggests Bill, to which Mac replies, “Don’t start that with me, I’m not talking politics with you.”
What Mac has been noticing, along with his wife Jane (Carlee Avers), and another neighbour’s teenaged daughter Kim (Clare Foley), is that recently those around them – their work colleagues, fellow pupils, or just folk in the street – have been behaving oddly, as though out of sorts. When Mac later explains his suspicions that people have somehow changed and are no longer themselves, Kim’s uncle Kurt (Doug Tompos) responds: “You’re acting like a lunatic.” Mac’s beliefs, after all, sound alarmingly like Capgras delusion. The problem is, though, that a number (admittedly dwindling) of others shares Mac’s belief, however crazy it might sound – and Bill, who is now tied up in Mac and Jane’s basement after attacking and trying to kiss Mac, openly confirms that he has indeed changed, and has every intention, along with a growing number of changed fellow citizens, of cajoling, or even forcing, any remaining stragglers to change too. As the town is held under curfew, with air-raid sirens regularly blaring and an army of the changed circling outside, those beleaguered within must decide, on this night of the living dead, whether to conform to the prevailing social shift, or to make a last-ditch stand for themselves.
Anyone familiar with the subgenre into which The Changed obviously falls will also know that Mac’s initial insistence on remaining apolitical is as doomed as his later acts of resistance. Adapted from Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) not only turned contemporary reds-under-the-bed paranoia into ‘B’ sci-fi, but established a narrative template that would see reimaginings by Philip Kaufman in 1978, Abel Ferrara in 1993 and Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2007, and would further inspire films as otherwise varied as Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Sean Ellis’ The Brøken (2008), Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon (2014), John Murlowski’s Assimilate (2019) and James Suttles’ The Nest (aka The Bewailing, 2021). What unites all these films is a population rapidly replaced with monstrous clones, and a tendency towards political allegory.
Designated ‘a Michael Mongillo conspiracy’ in its opening credits, The Changed too resonates with the politics of its (and our) times – although its pared back nature, a product in part of budgetary constraints, ensures that it is too abstract to pin down to particulars. What Bill and seductive neighbour Sara (Olivia Freer) offer is an almost Zen-like serenity, free from “fear, confusion, doubt”, which does seem attractive, but comes with a certain dead-eyed conformity. Bill’s characterisation of this change as an awakening might suggest an alignment with (as some like Mac might see it) the politically correct groupthink of ‘woke’ progressives. Meanwhile Mac’s dogged refusal to comply marks him as a rugged individualist, and his ready adoption of a shot gun to defend his property leaves him resembling the kind of raving NRA-affiliated Trumpist who shouts “Get off my lawn!” to all comers.
The adolescent Kim falls somewhere between these two positions, wavering between embracing the happy multitude, or standing her ground – and while Mongillo’s screenplay (co-written with Matt Giannini) certainly has three or four more repetitive conversations than it really (in the interests of economy) needs about the pros and cons of joining the crowd, it is around this dialectic that the film hinges. For the ‘Changed’, who look like people, who are well-mannered and appealingly content, who convert with persuasion and a kiss, are not in themselves frightening – rather it is change itself which here is the source of both horror and desire, while hostility to change, an attitude that is inevitably conservative in nature, makes Mac and Kim either the film’s heroic defenders of individual liberty or its inflexible, intractable dinosaurs, unwilling and unable to transition to a better life for all. This is a portrait, painted in genre, of a polarised America.
strap: Michael Mongillo’s pared-down body-snatching sci-fi pits immovable conservatism against the frightening sweep of progress
© Anton Bitel