Tony Todd in The Changed (2021) | courtesy of FrightFest

FrightFest: Horror Sci-Fi ‘The Changed’ Burrows into Your Head

Director Michael Mongillo’s The Changed, premiering at FrightFest, plays with genre tradition to convey innocence amidst darker tones.

The Changed
Michael Mongillo
MeanTime
27 August 2021 (FrightFest)

It’s difficult to approach director Michael Mongillo’s The Changed (2021), and not think about director Don Siegel’s 1956 film, The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, adapted from Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, about humans replaced by cloned “pod people”.

Mac (Jason Alan Smith) and his young neighbour Kim (Clare Foley) try to shrug off the feeling that people are acting strangely until they realise that their neighbour Bill (Tony Todd) is under the control of alien intelligence. Taking him hostage and tying him to a chair in the basement, Mac, his wife Jane (Carlee Avers) and Kim, learn of the horror that faces them – there’s a deadline to comply. As the horde of the changed gather outside, ready to force them to embrace the change if they cannot be persuaded to, Mongillo’s film also echoes George Romero’s claustrophobic siege horror, Night of the Living Dead (1968), and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).

Finding these associations fulfils the desire to connect a new film to something familiar. Creating this network of films by association is how storytellers conceive and how we as the audience understand a story. It can do a film a disservice, but as with the story of The Unchanged, it’s the conflict between belonging collectively while preserving one’s individualism. 

It’s a theme that may resonate differently for a British audience. Watching the conflict unfold, for those who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum, we find ourselves here rooting for individualism. If we have developed a comfortable feeling of being proponents of the social collective, over the isolationism of individualism, The Changed penetrates any naïveté.

The characters are denied their free will and right to self-determination. The threat is to individualism and it’s only natural that we’re compelled to root for Mac, Jane, and Kim’s fight to preserve their humanity. It penetrates a simple identification that we’re one or the other. In essence, they’re abstract terms, and what struck me was how, in these turbulent and changing times, I’d come to see myself as one over the other. As humans, we’re driven to belong, to be accepted by our society, but we also have a need to preserve our individual identity.    

If Mongillo has attempted to avoid making any grand statements, instead primarily focusing on crafting an entertaining film, he cannot repress the story’s desire to express these themes and ideas. These are naturally occurring, and in deciding to tell this story, he entered into an unwritten contract in which these themes and ideas will surface.

Spiralling out from our expectations that the closest comparison will be to The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, The Changed tonally echoes the lightheartedness of Joe Dante’s horror comedies The ‘Burbs (1989) and The Hole (2009). Mongillo emphasises the delightful humorous pleasure in which horror can play out, but he’s wise to flavour it with beats of serious desperation, rousing talk of standing their ground, and sharing emotion. 

There’s something authentically American about this tale of paranoia and the struggle against the alien takeover. The thematic thread through The ‘Burbs and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is the feeling of insecurity. From Mayfield Place to the fictional town of Santa Mira, California, beneath the surface, they convey American insecurity.

The threat in each story is a means to embolden the sense of the American identity and values through an empowering act. These films suggest that, in spite of American patriotism, the nation still hasn’t resolved the trauma of the War of Independence (1775-1783), nor the successive wars since, from the ideological conflict of the American Civil War (1861-1865), and American attempts to thwart communism in and Korea (1950-1953) and Vietnam (1955-1975).

The Changed eerily echoes the fierce divisions of ‘which side are you on?’ that are noticeably present in our contemporary society. It taps into shared fears of a loss of control and identity. A simple story, as with The Night of the Living Dead, The Changed can be transformed into a more social, political, and culturally aware work than its simple premise might intend.

The thoughtfulness is effortless, unintentional even, and it begs viewers to question, ‘who is the author of the work?’ Are certain stories their own author, with a freedom to express themselves should the filmmaker avoid deliberately bold statements? This might be Mongillo’s skill, allowing the themes and ideas to speak for themselves, while he focuses on the other aspects of storytelling.

The associations to other genre classics do not stifle its charm, which seduces. It recalls a type of cinema from previous decades, of innocence amidst darker tones. Todd captivates with his passive-aggressiveness, and the rest of the cast, including Kim’s father Kurt (Doug Tompos), who finds himself holed up with his daughter and their neighbours, conveys a feeling of ordinary folk caught up in an unprecedented predicament. The characters have to dig deep within themselves to be bold.

Mongillo makes a creative decision that will divide audiences, but he also shows trust in his audience to engage their imaginations with the film.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters