Director: Peter Medak
Screenplay: William Gray, Diana Maddox
Based on a Story by: Russell Hunter
Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas
Running Time: 107 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I love a good horror movie, but I can be a bit of a wuss so there are certain sub-genres or styles I avoid. I don’t enjoy ‘Torture porn’ for instance so never go out of my way to catch the likes of Hostel and its sequels. One style of horror film I’ll always happily watch though is the haunted house movie. I’ve always preferred this type of creepy, mysterious horror to gory slashers or silly monster movies (although both of those still have their charms). Although not a big success at the time of its release, The Changeling has developed somewhat of a reputation as one of the best haunted house movies over the years, championed by directors such as Martin Scorsese and Alejandro Amenabar. I saw it at a film festival a decade or so ago and liked it a lot, so I jumped at the chance of revisiting it with this lovingly assembled new Blu-Ray release by Second Sight.
The Changeling is loosely based on the supposedly true accounts of incidents at a house by Cheesman Park in Denver, Colorado. Fleshing these out into a cohesive story, the filmmakers mould them around the character of John Russell (George C. Scott). He’s a respected composer whose wife and daughter are killed (as shown in a shocking opening sequence), leaving him distraught. He decides to move away to escape the difficult memories and rents a huge mansion owned by the local historical society. The space is just what he needs to isolate himself and get some work done.
However, he starts to experience disturbing sounds and unexplained phenomena and, after finding a hidden attic room and organising a seance, discovers that the house hides a dark secret. It seems a young boy was killed there and replaced by another child (the titular ‘changeling’). The spirit of the boy wants the truth to be told and continues to haunt John until he and his friend Claire (Trish Van Devere) put all the pieces together.
The Changeling contains all the tropes I most love about classic haunted house films. It relies on slow burn chills and a creepy atmosphere to give you the shivers rather than hammer you into submission with blood and cheap shocks (although it isn’t without its jump scares). It doesn’t do anything new with the genre that hadn’t been done before or since, but it delivers the goods incredibly successfully with great class and craftsmanship.
Most importantly, for a horror film, it’s still scary. There’s a nice build through the film from things that go bump in the night to a grand, fiery finale. There’s a very low body count and only the merest glimpse of what you might call a ‘ghost’, but fear is instilled through gliding camera moves, odd high angles, shadowy cinematography, wonderfully gothic production design, eerie (yet often quite beautiful) music and unsettling sound design. Director Peter Medak and his crew do wonders with simple techniques such as a child’s ball bouncing into shot. It really is a masterclass in cinematic terror.
On top of simply being a really classy horror film, The Changeling adds an extra layer through it’s sense of melancholy. John’s personal grief gives a stronger emotional link between him and the house’s spirit. This poignant aspect reminded me of The Sixth Sense where once again the protagonists sympathise with the dead and try to solve their issues to let them be at peace. In lesser haunted house films, the heroes simply get frightened and want to stop the ghosts in order to save their own skins or get a good night’s sleep.
Helping deliver this emotional aspect to the film is a strong performance by the ever dependable George C. Scott. He gives a more subtle performance here than in some of his more famous roles such as in Patton and Dr. Strangelove. I did find a couple of his close up reactions a little over the top perhaps, but largely it’s a another example of why I consider him to be one of the finest actors of his generation.
John’s easy acceptance and quick putting together of the film’s central mystery is a little hard to swallow perhaps. As the film moves on it gets a little more over the top too. However, as a featurette included on the Blu-Ray describes, much of the film was indeed based on actual accounts. Even the bits with the ball reappearing and the piano playing by itself supposedly happened, so the writer was only going by what was reported for the most part.
All in all then, it’s a finely crafted haunted house movie that maybe isn’t the most unique of its kind, but uses familiar techniques very effectively. Added class comes from a fine lead performance and emotional depth often missing from horror films. With a fairly engrossing central mystery to keep you hooked and some genuinely frightening sequences, it’s a classic horror that deserves to be better known.
The Changeling is out on 13th August on Blu Ray in the UK, released by Second Sight. The grain is a little heavy in the first scene or two (largely due to the snowy white setting here) but once the film settles in it looks and sounds fantastic.
Second Sight have assembled an impressive amount of special features and other physical extras to make up this package. The details are as follows:
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
– Brand new 4K scan and restoration
- Audio commentary with director Peter Medak and producer Joel B. Michaels
- ‘The House on Cheesman Park’ – The Haunting True Story of The Changeling
- ‘The Music of The Changeling’ – Interview with Music Arranger Kenneth Wannberg
– ‘Building The House of Horror’ – Interview with Art Director Reuben Freed
- ‘The Psychotronic Tourist’ – The Changeling
- ‘Master of Horror Mick Garris on The Changeling’
- Trailer, TV Spot
– New English subtitles for the hearing impaired
– Reversible sleeve with new artwork by Christopher Shy and original poster artwork
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
– Original Soundtrack CD
- 40 page perfect-bound booklet with new essay by Kevin Lyons, original production notes and archive on-set interview
– Double-sided poster featuring new artwork by Christopher Shy and original poster artwork
– Rigid slipcase
The commentary is pretty good, but I preferred the other interviews here. I found it interesting to hear from Wannberg as I didn’t know much about the role of a music editor/arranger and the art direction in The Changeling is fantastic, so I appreciated the inclusion of Freed in the features too. My favourite extra here though has to be ‘The House on Cheesman Park’ . The interviewee involved is a bit of an odd character, but the story is fascinating and helped me better appreciate the film’s writing. It’s great to have the soundtrack included in the package too. I didn’t receive a copy, but I love the music in the film. It’s a great package then and is a must buy for any horror aficionado.