The Changeling Review
Produced and released independently in 1980, The Changeling was largely overlooked at the time, overshadowed by bigger studio releases of the day such as Kubrick’s The Shining. Slowly it has grown in stature over the years, with Stephen King recently citing The Changeling as one of his favourite scary movies. Similarly, when Martin Scorsese provided his top 11 list of horrors, this supernatural frightener – allegedly based on true events - appeared rubbing shoulders with much earlier spine-tingling classics like The Uninvited (1944) and Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). The Changeling was directed by Hungarian-born Peter Medak, an eleventh-hour replacement after both Donald Cammell and Tony Richardson withdrew from the project due to the usual “creative differences”.
The film opens with a tautly directed harrowing sequence as music professor John Russell (George C. Scott) watches helplessly from a phone booth as his wife and daughter are killed in a vehicle accident on a treacherous snow-covered road. A few months pass and, still devastated, Russell decides to move away from New York to leave the painful memories behind. Relocating to Seattle and in need of a place to live, friends recommend that he visits the local Historical Society, which rent out old properties for a knockdown rate. Sure enough, eager curator Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) thinks she has the perfect place for him - the Cheesman House - a sprawling old mansion surrounded by dense woodland. Many might be deterred by the sheer size of the property with its labyrinth of gloomy passageways or, more ominously, the fact that it has sat unoccupied for the past 12 years. Russell on the other hand willingly agrees to move in, believing the mansion offers everything he needs, namely solitude and a large music room to practice his compositions.
At this early point the narrative doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of a typical haunted house tale, as Russell starts to experience a strange presence. He is awakened early each morning by a loud unexplained clanging sound, doors swing open for no apparent reason and even the piano appears to develop a life of its own. More menacingly, a bathtub fills itself and the horrifying image of a drowning boy is briefly glimpsed in the water. When Russell reports the strange occurrences, Norman’s starchy colleague Miss Huxley (Ruth Springford) warns chillingly, “The house is not fit to live in - it doesn’t want people”.
Rather than pack his suitcases and make a hasty exit, Russell feels that, as a recently bereaved parent, something in the mansion is trying to reach out to him. Uncovering a hidden attic room that conceals a child’s wheelchair and journal dated “1909”, only heightens his suspicions that the house is holding a dark secret from the past. Even an old music box inexplicably plays the same melody that he had been composing earlier that day. These strange findings provide enough impetus for Russell to stay, determined to uncover the truth, even if the longer he remains in the property will increasingly put his life – and those around him - in jeopardy.
Medak shuns the need for grandiose set pieces and explicitness that would become the mainstay of contemporary horror, instead skilfully maintaining an atmosphere of dread with the scares often simple but still highly effective – what exactly could be lurking in the shadows? One iconic scene finds a rubber ball bouncing loudly down the wooden staircase to greet the perplexed Russell. It’s unsettling not only because it belonged to his late daughter, as foreshadowed earlier in the story, but even after Russell pitches the ball into a nearby creek it manages to defiantly return. Equally disturbing is a séance – almost obligatory in this type of film – where the spirit identifies itself for the first time and a sinister whispering voice is captured on recording equipment.
From here, we are frequently taken away from the house and to various other locations as Russell gathers clues, turning the film more into a murder mystery. This is a film imbued with sadness, with more tragedy emerging than at first meets the eye. The ever-reliable Scott brings real gravity to the role as the mourning Russell and there’s solid support from screen veteran Melvyn Douglas as the local Senator. It’s a pity that co-star Van Devere makes for a stilted Norman, who befriends Russell during the film and supports his sleuthing.
The screenplay (written by William Gray and Diana Maddox) gradually becomes a little too contrived, with Russell demonstrating some well-honed investigative skills that would put Columbo to shame, fitting the pieces together with relative ease. Credibility is stretched further in a later scene as a woman, who has never met Russell before, allows the self-assured stranger into her home to start excavating for further evidence. It does allow Medak to provide an extraordinary overhead shot from a bedroom looking down through a hole in the floor and deep into a well beneath as Russell sifts desperately through the silt – like a man obsessed.
There is much to admire about The Changeling, particularly the terrific production design (by Trevor Williams) considering the modest budget, with some lavishly detailed sets. There is also excellent use of locations, with talented DOP John Coquillon – a Peckinpah regular – showing off some eye-catching landmarks to great effect. While the film does not quite hit the bullseye to be regarded as a bonafide classic of the genre, it still manages to be a superior creepy treat.
The Changeling was originally released in UK cinemas during the summer of 1980 by Brent Walker, bearing the old “X” certificate (equivalent to the current 18 rating) and later found its way on to video. The film was last released in the UK by Momentum Pictures on DVD during 2002 (bearing a 15 rating), but there have been no further reissues since. Therefore, this new release from Second Sight Films marks the first time it has been made available on Blu-ray in the UK. For the film’s HD debut, it has been given a 4K transfer, with authoring duties carried out by Fidelity in Motion’s David Mackenzie.
Preserving the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the film looks simply dazzling and is a vast improvement over the old DVD. There’s some light grain more evident in couple of early scenes, but otherwise the image is bright and detailed throughout, with no signs of damage. Fine textures can be clearly seen in garments worn by the characters and skin tones look consistently natural. Considering the interior sets of the mansion feature extensive dark wood furnishing, a considerable amount of detail is still noticeable, highlighting the effort that went into the production design and art direction. Contrast levels are also excellent throughout.
There are two audio choices: DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM 2.0. Both options do a sterling job showing off the film’s highly effective sound design, from the subtle creepy whispering to the more dramatic moments like the rubber ball thudding down the wooden staircase. The evocative score composed by Rick Wilkins sounds terrific too. New English subtitles for the hearing impaired are also included.
A great new set of extras produced by David Gregory and Carl Daft, which are identical to those that appear on Severin's Blu-ray in the US:
Audio commentary with director Peter Medak and producer Joel B. Michaels.
The House on Cheesman Park: The Haunting True Story of The Changeling (17:31) - Sporting a flamboyant shirt, author and historian Dr. Phil Goodstein tells the fascinating story that formed the basis for The Changeling. Goldstein explains that Denver, Colarado, was originally the home to Mount Prospect Hill Cemetery. However, by the late 1880s the cemetery had slipped into disrepair, so City officials planned to turn it into a public space, which they would call Cheesman Park. Undertakers exhumed several thousand bodies and, shockingly, hacked the contents of each coffin into smaller pieces for easy transport.
Despite considerable excavation, it is thought that 2000 skeletons remained under the vast former burial ground. As the land was transformed into a park and residential area, it developed a reputation for otherworldly activity. In 1968 musician Russell Hunter rented the Henry Treat Rogers mansion that stood on the northern edge of Cheesman Park, attracted by the low rent of $200 per month. In the weeks that followed, he claims to have witnessed terrifying paranormal events in the mansion. This prompted Russell to later write The Changeling which is, allegedly, all based on his own experiences.
The Music of The Changeling (8:59) - Music Arranger Ken Wannberg, a frequent collaborator with John Williams, discusses his work on this film.
Building The House of Horror (10:56) - Art Director Reuben Freed talks briefly about his background, relocating from South Africa to Canada with a degree in architecture and eventually becoming a set designer. He provides a unique insight into the production of The Changeling, explaining that the Cheesman mansion didn't actually exist and had to be created especially for the film. A façade was constructed over an existing building to create the impressive exterior, while the extraordinary interiors were all studio sets.
The Psychotronic Tourist: The Changeling (16:02) - Film writer Kier-La Janisse - founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies - guides us around the various memorable filming locations used in the film. These include New York's famous Lincoln Center, Seattle's Lake View Cemetery (where Bruce Lee is buried), the striking Ranier Tower and Hatley Castle in Canada (used for several X-Men movies). There are also contributions from other horror fans including Fangoria's Michael Gingold.
Master of Horror Mick Garris on The Changeling (5:31) - The filmmaker explains why he is a fan of Peter Medak, right from the early days when the director was making films such as British satire The Ruling Class (1972) with Peter O'Toole. Garris would later invite Medak to direct an episode of his Masters of Horror Series (an episode entitled The Washingtonians).
Trailer & TV Spot (2:18).
Limited Edition Original Soundtrack CD and a 40 page booklet with new essay by Kevin Lyons, production notes and on-set interview with George C. Scott (neither were available for review).
A stylish double-sided poster and reversible Amaray sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by artist Christopher Shy and original poster art.
The Changeling Blu-ray is released by Second Sight Films on 13 August 2018