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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

The Changeling (1980) dir: Peter Medak Blu Ray (Second Sight)

A tragic accident and a haunted mansion

This supernatural chiller begins as the Russell family - concert pianist John (George C. Scott), his wife Joanna (Jean Marsh) and their daughter Kathy (Michelle Martin) - push their broken-down car up a snow-covered mountain road in upstate New York. When they reach a phone booth, John takes the opportunity to call for help. Within seconds, however, he finds himself watching helplessly as both of his immediate family members perish in a tragic road accident.

John decides to literally move on from the devastating incident by relocating from New York to Seattle, where he rents an old mansion from a local historical society. While he settles in, he continues working on his piano compositions and starts to bond with a lovely society member named Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere). However, he also notices a series of strange occurrences around the house: a succession of loud bangs each morning, a door suddenly opening by itself and taps running despite the fact that nobody appears to be turning them on. Over time, the incidents become even more inexplicable and terrifying. Has his deceased daughter come back to haunt him? John decides to bring in a spirit medium to find out the truth.

Watch a trailer:

Based on an allegedly true ghost story

In 1979, the haunted house chiller enjoyed something of a revival courtesy of The Amityville Horror, a film which went on to become one of the highest grossing films at the US box office that year. Its success has largely been attributed to the fact that it was based on a phenomenally popular book (written by Jay Anson) which claimed - albeit with a lack of corroborating evidence - to be an account of a real-life haunting. The film itself is frankly a pretty weak affair, directed by Stuart Rosenberg in a manner bereft of any real understanding of how to scare an audience.

The Changeling, like The Amityville Horror the year before it, was also derived from an account of an alleged real-life haunting, this time experienced by writer Russell Hunter while he was living in Denver. However, it failed to make anywhere near as much impact as the previous film despite the fact that it is immeasurably superior in most respects. As we can see right from the dramatic opening, Peter Medak has a real flair for building atmosphere and tension, with some great wide angle shots effectively conveying the vastness of its locations in a manner which slightly predates Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining (the latter was released a few months afterwards).

The film is at its best within the environs of the central mansion, its elaborate oak-fixtured interior functioning as a fascinating secret-filled labyrinth for its protagonist to explore. Its tactics used to shock and scare are surprisingly restrained for the era, e.g. during one sequence, we hear the sinister sound of running water somewhere in the house, a device rather similar to one used in the excellent A Drop of Water segment from Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. The film’s overall approach to horror might explain why audiences of the time (who were craving Tom Savini-style onscreen prosthetic gore) shunned it during its cinema release. When it is watched today, however, it is clear that these more subtle tactics are deployed with unnerving effectiveness. You’ll never look at a wheelchair the same way again! The soundtrack by Richard Wilkins is suitably ominous and makes some memorable use of diegetic music courtesy of the central character’s piano.

Trish Van Devere in The Changeling

While contemporary reviews were generally positive, Roger Ebert criticised the fact that George C. Scott’s character remains fairly rational and resilient throughout, arguing that it reduces the sense that he’s in any real peril. From my perspective, however, this refreshingly differentiates the film from the likes of The Amityville Horror (featuring James Brolin’s famous “I’m coming apart!” scene) and The Shining (where Jack Nicholson’s character is clearly barely keeping it together right from the outset and only deteriorates from then on). The manner in which this central character manages to keep on top of the situation allows the tale to make a fascinating semi-transition into a sort of detective movie. Unfortunately, the resultant investigatory scenes (most of which are placed in the middle of the film) are arguably the weakest bits. While Medak displays a real flair for visual storytelling through much of the runtime, he tends to let the talk prevail during these stretches. At one point, for instance, Scott’s character digs up a skeletal hand and suddenly exclaims to one of the others (in his distinctive gravelly voice): “It’s a hand!”. Err, we can see that already. It’s not a fatal issue by any means but it does make this aspect of the film feel a bit more pedestrian than it might have been.

As per usual, Scott turns in a commanding performance which mixes intimidating gruffness with a certain seasoned warmth and charm. Trish Van Devere (who was his real-life wife from 1971 until his death in 1999) provides solid support as an onscreen female companion who helps him in his investigations. Melvyn Douglas plays a mean, crumbling old senator who turns out to be a crucial piece in the overall puzzle. There are also a couple of well-known Canadian character actors who have been saddled with such brief roles here that one gets the feeling they were only cast in order to fulfill funding deal obligations. Barry Morse barely registers in his one short scene as a parapsychologist. While John Colicos has been given a slightly longer and more substantial cameo as a police captain, even he doesn’t get more than two scenes - the second of which is so fleeting and basic that it hardly counts.

Everything comes together in a suitably chilling and thrilling climax. The Changeling is an underrated gem with great camerawork, effective spine chills and fine acting. Well worth a look for those who prefer to get their horror from things that go bump in the night rather than from blood and innards being thrown at the screen.

Runtime: 107 mins

Dir: Peter Medak

Script: Russell Hunter, William Gray, Diana Maddox

Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh, John Colicos, Barry Morse, Michelle Martin

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

Despite being a brand new 4K restoration, it’s a bit of a mixed bag visually. A few shots are very grainy and somewhat washed out, the opening title sequence shot in New York being the most notable example. Other scenes, however, look pretty damn good. Unfortunately, it’s worse in the sound department. It sounds rather muffled and fuzzy throughout.

Extras

Audio Commentary

David Gregory from Severin Films presents this commentary with director Peter Medak and producer Joel Michaels, who discuss just about every possible aspect of the production. While a small number of scenes were shot on location in Seattle and New York City, at least 80% of it was filmed in Canada (mainly Vancouver) in order to comply with the production funding agreement. It was made before the city of Vancouver was modernised and this meant that Medak was able to make great use of the abundant old Victorian-style architecture. The budget was 8 million Canadian dollars, 1 million of which was used to pay George C. Scott and half a million of which was spent on the huge mansion set. While they were initially worried about actor Scott’s reputation for being temperamental, Medak felt that he was fine to work with; he recalls him only losing his temper once when the production team moved his trailer and accidentally wrecked a chess game which he played against himself during breaks in filming.

They also talk about the The Changeling’s box office fate and subsequent legacy. It fared poorly in the US because the financier had a deal going with Sir Lew Grade’s Associated Film Distribution (AFD) company, who didn’t release it as widely as they ideally should have done. Ironically, while Hollywood studio MGM had expressed an interest in US distribution, the existing AFD deal meant that this was a non-starter. However, the film did well in Canada and elsewhere. Both Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are self-confessed fans and have their own prints. Producer Michaels also points out the influence the film had on later well-regarded supernatural chillers such as What Lies Beneath, The Others and The Orphan, all of which craftily borrowed certain ideas and scenes from it.

Another point of interest to note is that the legendary British director Donald Cammell (Performance) was originally brought aboard. However, when Michaels realised that Cammell’s vision for the film deviated too far from his own, he decided to let him go even though he had to pay him due to contractual requirements. Medak was his replacement.

The House on Cheesman Park

Phil Goodstein, author of The Ghosts of Denver: Capitol Hill, talks about the allegedly haunted house upon which the story of The Changeling was based. It all started in the 19th century, when Denver’s Mount Prospect Cemetery was converted into Cheesman Park. While the bodies were intended to be relocated, the city council gave the job to the cheapest and most corner-cutting undertaker, who decided to move them in a piecemeal fashion. When this caused an uproar, the council decided to stop the relocation process and simply build the park over the remaining cadavers. However, a number of reports of hauntings have subsequently occurred at properties around the park’s periphery.

In 1968, musical prodigy and pianist Russell Hunter decided to move to Denver in 1968 and took out a lease on a mansion near Cheesman Park which once belonged to a wealthy businessman named Henry Treat Rogers. While he was living there, he was troubled by a series of mysterious supernatural-style occurrences (since the film follows these events fairly faithfully, I won’t go into too much detail for fear of spoiling things). When the lease expired six years later, he moved out and the house was demolished. However, a number of people involved in the demolition suffered untimely fates. There have also been reports of strange occurrences at the building which now stands it its place, the Summer House at 1313 Williams Street.

This is quite an enjoyable little doc, albeit marred by a few irritating flashing effects as it transitions between shots of Goodstein himself and some historical archive photographs.

The Music of The Changeling

Conductor and music arranger Kenneth Wannberg talks about his work on the film as well as briefly touching upon his regular working relationship with renowned movie composer John Williams. His interview is overlaid with a few bits of photo memorabilia. He also reveals that The Changeling’s central music box theme was created before he got involved. With that, he plays us his own idea of how it should have been done on his trusty piano. A surprisingly good featurette.

Building The House of Horror

South African-born art director Reuben Freed reveals that he had originally wanted to be a documentary filmmaker but ended up falling into set design. He talks about the process of assembling the film’s central mansion set, which used so-called “wild pieces” that could be moved quickly in order to accommodate the elaborate camerawork.

The Psychotronic Tourist

It’s yet another incredibly entertaining featurette, this time presented by Kier-La Janisse and a few on-the-spot reporters. It is part of a series produced by Severin which looks at film locations then and now.

Needless to say, this one revisits the main locations from The Changeling in Canada, Seattle and New York. While some have remained much the same since then, others have changed dramatically. Canadian makeup artist Ryan Nicholson revisits the location where the film’s mansion was built. It is now long gone (it was earmarked for demolition when the film was made and was burnt down as part of its climax) and has since been replaced by a more modern house. Clinton McClung, programmer Seattle Film Festival, visits the Lake View Cemetery in Seattle and reveals that it is home to the graves of Bruce and Brandon Lee. Fascinating stuff.

Master of Horror Mick Garris on The Changeling

A short but sweet appreciation of the film courtesy of genre writer/director and Masters of Horror series producer Garris.

The extras are rounded out by an enclosed 40-page booklet, original soundtrack CD, trailer and TV spot.

Overall:

This is definitely a superior supernatural horror. While the audio-visual aspects here aren’t the best, the quality and quantity of the extras make it a very tempting package overall.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆☆

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