THE CHANGELING ****
Directed by Peter Medak. Starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh, John Colicos, Barry Morse. Horror, Canada, 106 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Limited Edition Blu-ray by Second Sight Films on August 13th 2018.
John Russell (George C. Scott – THE EXORCIST III) is a composer whose wife and young daughter are killed in a motoring accident. To cope with his grief John throws himself into his work and moves into a huge mansion in Seattle owned by the local historical society where he can work on his music and teach his students in relative solitude. But John’s attempts to return to a normal life are interrupted by his new house seemingly coming alive, with banging and crashing coming from nowhere every morning, his piano playing music all by itself and his dead daughter’s favourite bouncing ball rolling down the stairs at random moments. Upon investigation John discovers that his new home was the scene of a tragic crime years before, and spirits from the past are looking to the new occupant of the house to put things right so they can rest in peace.
THE CHANGELING is a film often cited as one of the best examples of how to make a haunted house movie, and for the first hour or so this is probably true as director Peter Medak (SPECIES II/THE KRAYS) uses very little to create a lot of atmosphere. Much like its contemporary sister piece THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE CHANGELING – also based on ‘true’ events – is a slow-burner, with bumps, bangs and creaking doors making up most of the scares during the setup, culminating in the terrifying moment that John Russell sees his child’s toy ball come bouncing down the stairs, despite having locked it away in his desk beforehand. However, things take a slightly different turn after this when John suffers a ghostly vision that reveals to him the details of what happened in his house years before and the film then turns into something of a procedural as John has to put the clues together before coming to the realisation that somebody linked to the past event is still alive. Only after this realisation the atmosphere that Medak seemed to set up so meticulously during that first hour seems to disappear.
Part of this is the nature of the story and the idea that Russell must piece together clues to help solve a mystery that no one outside of any previous occupants of the house is aware of, but some of this also comes down to the character of John Russell himself. Whether it is the way he is written or whether it is George C. Scott himself, John never really comes across as an emotional character despite the tragedy that happens to him during the first few minutes of the film. You feel sorry for him because he seems like a nice guy and a loving husband and father but once he moves into the house he treats the events that happen as very matter-of-fact, rarely raising his voice or seeming troubled by the sight of his dead daughter’s toys appearing even after he has thrown them in the river. It’s a bit of a contrast to James Brolin and Margot Kidder appearing to go mad after what happens to them in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and while the calmer atmosphere is effective during certain scenes, such as the aforementioned bouncing ball moment, once you get the gist of where the film is going the sense of threat or immediate danger lessens.
But that doesn’t stop THE CHANGELING from being a memorable supernatural chiller, just not the complete trip into otherworldliness that made other landmark ghost movies like THE HAUNTING, POLTERGEIST and the ubiquitous THE AMITYVILLE HORROR so effective. It is a very classy looking production and, thanks to Peter Medak’s filming techniques, doesn’t have to rely on special effects – of which there are very few – to get a reaction out of its audience. The deliberate pacing of the first half of the film may put off modern (i.e. younger) audiences used to quick-fire jump scares but this film was made in different times and looks back to the classics for its inspiration, as well as the real-life events that inspired the story.
Packaged in a rigid slipcase the 4K scan looks great despite THE CHANGELING not really being a visual feast, although there is a sense of depth that the restoration brings to the image. The disc also comes with an audio commentary by director Peter Medak and producer Joel B. Michaels, a featurette detailing the events that the film is based on, interviews with composer Kenneth Wannberg and set designer Reuben Freed plus an interview with filmmaker and fan Mick Garris. As if that wasn’t enough you also get a soundtrack CD, a poster and a 40-page booklet with writings about the film so Second Sight have delved deep to make a definitive package for collectors and, if truth be told, the extras do bolster the movie up a little bit. THE CHANGELING is a very good movie and one that deserves such an excellent release but in terms of how it sits in the pantheon of haunted house movies it may be just a tad over-praised, only because ultimately it doesn’t manage to keep up the spookiness that is promised early on.
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