‘The Changeling’ Review: Apple’s Chilling Fantasy Horror Series Will Keep You Riveted
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Tv ‘The Changeling’ Review: Apple’s Chilling Fantasy Horror Series Will Keep You Riveted

‘The Changeling’ Review: Apple’s Chilling Fantasy Horror Series Will Keep You Riveted

‘The Changeling’ Review: Apple’s Chilling Fantasy Horror Series Will Keep You Riveted

Every horror story is already somewhat spoiled.

Whether it’s a movie, TV show, book, or short story, the horror classification alone is a tip off to the audience; a warning that despite any good fortune these characters appear to have, their lives are about to take a sharp downward turn.

So unfolds the first installment of Apple’s “The Changeling,” based on the 2017 horror novel by Victor LaValle and adapted for television by Kelly Marcel. Episode 101 wears the disguise of romantic drama, the story of Apollo Kagwa (Lakeith Stanfield) and Emma Valentine (Clark Backo), a rare bookseller and librarian who fall in love. There’s even a parallel flashback to Apollo’s mother Lillian (Alexis Louder) and father Brian (Jared Abrahamson). Packaged with Melina Matsoukas’ direction, Marcell Rev’s cinematography, and LaValle himself narrating lofty ideas about fate and identity, you could almost forget briefly forget that promised seed of horror as it blooms beneath the surface.

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But not for nothing is Apple releasing three episodes of “The Changeling” at once — because it’s standard for streaming, sure, but because by Episode 3 the series is so engulfed by darkness and mystery that those fleeting flashes of bliss could not feel more distant. Not only does it deal in terror and tension, but in violence, grief, and the agony of the unknown. (It’s hard to issue a content warning without a full-on spoiler, so suffice it to say that your worst fears will come true.) The premiere episodes are so packed with intrigue that there’s no resisting return; to find out why the series opens the way it does, what’s wrong with Apollo’s memories of his father, and what Emma wished for at a forbidden lagoon in Brazil.

Later in the season, those answers are complex bordering on nonexistent. That isn’t an explicitly good or bad decision creatively, but the execution is a mixed bag. Atmospherically, “The Changeling” invokes Mike Flanagan’s mesmerizing and ambiguous “Haunting” series on Netflix, not only with its deliberate ambiguity but with lush, striking visuals — rich nighttime scenes awash in lens flare, backlighting, pops of light amid shadow that feel alternately wondrous and deadly.

What “The Changeling” is less confident about is the fantasy side of its identity, the witchcraft and folklore and sinister magic that exists in this world, or maybe the next one over. Stories like these don’t necessarily require rules and and structure, but there’s a delicate line between style and substance that later episodes toe too hard.

A woman holding a bundled-up baby in an apartment with the drapes drawn; still from
“The Changeling”Christos Kalohoridis/Apple

Stanfield, who also executive produces the series, is exceptional. After scene-stealing supporting roles in “Atlanta” and his Oscar-nominated performance in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” his turn as Apollo is unimpeachable — and grounding a series like “The Changeling” is anything but simple. Backo makes Emma at once beguiling, terrifying, and sympathetic. Despite very little physical intimacy, they create a palpable chemistry through body language and dialogue (aided once again by strong direction and confident camerawork). Malcolm Barrett’s best friend Patrice is a treat, but maybe on a slightly different show than everyone else; his scenes are the only ones with any comedy, and while the character is a welcome breather, he gets lost in the abstract, ambitious sauce of the story. Louder’s young Lillian charms immensely, paving the way for Adina Porter’s captivating older version.

Over the course of nine episodes (releasing weekly, but all screened for critics), “The Changeling” gently peels away at reality to reveal its fantastical secrets, some of which pay off more than others and which don’t altogether wrap up in a satisfying reveal. But at its best, the series is a vehicle for excellent performances (the less said about Samuel T. Herring the better, but he makes an absolute meal of limited screen time), breathtaking visuals, and narrative threads that beg to be pursued in search of eventual connection (the series shares some talent with “Station Eleven” and invokes the same puzzle-piece structure). Stick with it, and you won’t easily forget what you’ve experienced.

The first three episodes of “The Changeling” are now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes weekly.

Grade: B-

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