The Changeling Review
Quietly, The Changeling opens with non-descript credits on a black background before fading up to a bright white, snow covered scene, where a man and his family wonder what to do after their car has broken down. It’s a picturesque, winter wonderland, with Dad (George C. Scott) joking around with his wife and daughter. John Russell, a composer and lecturer, walks across the road leaving his family by the car, to use a payphone to call for help. As he’s dialing, a truck and another car are heading in opposite directions on the slippery, icy road. An accident is unavoidable, and both vehicles swerve to avoid hitting each other but the truck collides into the screaming mother clutching her young daughter. Russell watches from the phone booth, helpless and struggling to find his next breath – the image freezes, holding a snapshot of life mirroring death, as if to perpetuate the darkest moment in this man’s life. He’s lost everything he ever wanted and he’ll never, ever get it back.
The Changeling is an interesting film to say the least, because while it doesn’t have anything fresh to add to the genre (indeed, it’s story is fairly straightforward), director Peter Medak along with his technical staff (editor Linda Pederson, music composer Rick Wilkins) have created a visually and aurally beautiful film, that plays on the viewers perception of what is placed before them. While not quite matching De Palma’s masterpieces: Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Carrie, Sisters, Medak knows how to use the medium to effectively convey the horrors of what Russell’s character goes through. It goes as far as to ‘show up’ many of Hollywood’s latest efforts in the genre, like the similar themed The Haunting (1999), in that ‘horror’, be that ‘fear’ instilled in the audience, or something unexplainably awful on screen does not have to exist visually and sonically, but must question a persons own ideological, ethical, and/or religious beliefs to the point where a grey area is manifested in one’s mind that defies explanation in its consequence, motivation or otherwise. An eye appearing through a wall like in the original Haunting is frighteningly ambiguous but it’s what isn’t on screen that instills the fear and raises hairs on the backs of necks. A bed head coming alive stinks of CG diarrhea, like in the 1999 remake, and every attempt to ‘scare’ the audience falls flat because the eye candy is too perfect for its own good. Why Gus Van Sant remade Psycho shot for shot is another Hollywood horror show that gains the title ‘horror’ for all the wrong reasons. The revitalised teen-slasher genre that regurgitated old conventions and swept through theatres in the late nineties was perhaps the catalyst for getting Hitchcock’s classic remade, but Anthony Perkins can sleep soundly – Vince Vaughn’s pre-end credits, supposedly eerie smile, just made me think the laxatives the police gave him must finally have cured his constipation. The end-credits can’t arrive quick enough.
Medak’s film however, senses the constraints imposed by the supernatural subject matter. ‘Seeing’ is not necessarily ‘believing’, and a faint noise or something as simple as a ball rolling down the stairs, infers subjectively so much more than the overblown ‘spook’, or the cat jumping out of a cupboard, and therefore is much more effective because it roots out the viewer's own individual fears by forcing them to reason with the events onscreen. One particular scene that’s stands out is when Russell’s character holds a séance. Rick Wilkins’ music somberly broods throughout the scene, acting almost like a heartbeat undercurrent, gradually quickening in tempo, and getting louder in volume. Joan Coquillon keeps the colours of the photography bland, but utilises the darkness to create harsh shadows while Medak alternates between a subjective camera that drifts over the characters, to mid-shot reactions that are quickly cut quite brilliantly by editor Linda Pederson. The scene closes with a shot of the attic door slowly closing shut, ending one of the film’s highlights. Indeed, Medak is at home keeping his colour scheme bland and rather lifeless throughout the film, adopting an almost film noir feel to his photography, paying particular attention to how various camera angles and lighting effect the scene and the mystique tone he wants to maintain.
The less known about the plot, the better, but after his family die, Russell moves into a strange, old house. Unusual things begins to occur, suggesting a ‘presence’ may well be in the house, prompting him to investigate the house’s past. Perhaps it is William Gray and Diana Maddox’s script that prevents the film from greatness, as the story doesn’t stray from the tried and trusted, even by 1980 standards, and the finale is unoriginal and predictable. They do however, create a well-rounded character in Russell, whose existence we can empathise with. If you can get past the fact that at first, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with the possibility a ghost lives in his house (something that can partly be explained by the loss and grief he still feels), Russell’s plight is intriguing. The writers take the character on a journey of emotional recovery, making his investigation a personal vendetta to overcome his own inner demons regarding life and death, and to uncover a ghastly past so that it, and his own troubled past, can be laid to rest.
George C. Scott is excellent in the lead role, offering a real sense of tenderness, clearly deeply troubled by his family’s passing but trying as best he can, to overcome it. He appears almost alienated from society when he moves into the old house, which is more a conscious decision on his character’s part than anything (exemplified by the house being surrounded by trees and only accessible along a lengthy driveway), but it forces him to overcome his grief, not with counseling or with friends and relatives, but by accepting that something ‘otherworldly’ is with him in his home. It is an interesting device, and something that Scott helps to ground in a reality the audience can deal with. His reactions are believable to the events that occur, something we as an audience can relate to, but he also throws up questions regarding his own faith and in coming to terms and understanding one (does a ghost exist), allows him to overcome and understand the other (why did he lose his wife and daughter?).
Medak offers us some genuinely creepy moments throughout the film, and maintains a bitter, downbeat tone throughout. He utilises very simple techniques to their fullest effect and consciously creates a slow-burning film rather than scare-a-minute cheese. He allows the audience to catch their breath, but rather than that technique preventing the film from being chilling constantly, it works in the opposite way, because it gives the viewer the chance to dwell and contemplate what they have just seen, magnifying the horror.
The Changeling is an interesting horror-mystery that maintains its effectiveness for the most part, only losing some of its impact, when the revelations are revealed. George C. Scott is excellent as the father who has lost his closest family, and must now uncover a horrid truth, displaying a character who is believable when what is happening around him is far from it. The slow-burning nature of the film, and lack of graphic, explicit horror may put off some viewers, but those wanting a good mystery should check it out.
The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and anamorphic enhanced. The image is very good for its age and the blandness in colour, particularly in exterior shots, is part of the original photography rather than a fault with the DVD. Dark interior photography is displayed with good clarity, and the print used is in surprisingly good condition, displaying very little signs of age aside from some little specks of dirt that appear now and again, but are hardly noticeable. Some darker scenes do suffer from a little grain at times, and the contrast level changed dramatically on one or two occasions, but on the whole, this is a good presentation.
The sound is present in 2-channel stereo and overall, does a good job. The sound used in the film is very important but doesn’t lose any of its effectiveness without a full 5.1 workout, because it was made under the constraints of mono sound recording. Dialogue is clear and doesn’t feel overwhelmed when coupled with a lot of sound effects and music.
Screen-specific audio commentary with director Peter Medak - Speaking alone, Medak is a very dry speaker and leaves a few gaps of silence, but he has a lot of interesting information, mainly focusing on the technical sides of shooting the film. It's an interesting listen, certainly for fans of the film.
Photo Gallery - A montage of photo’s are displayed to sound. The photos show behind-the-scenes shots of the director, production staff, and actors working on the film.
A good old-fashioned mystery is what The Changeling ultimately is, and it deals with some interesting issues about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. It’s great while it keeps the audience clueless as to what really is going on, but by the final third, it becomes a little too predictable. The film is given a budget release on this region 2 Momentum DVD, sporting good picture and sound, and coupled with an informative commentary.