Starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, John Colicos
Directed by Peter Medak
Distributed by Severin Films
Have there been times in your life when you finally see a film that has been on The List for far too long and, after watching it, the urge to kick yourself in the ass for waiting so long is uncontrollable? Because that was more or less my feeling after watching The Changeling (1980) last summer, a mere 37 years after its release. Director Peter Medak’s Canadian creeper has never been thrust into the ghost story spotlight but over the years I heard consistent whispers about how it was “so scary” and “one of the best” in the subgenre. But people are so often prone to hyperbole I never made watching the film a priority… until last summer, when I found myself on vacation in Sicily, in a large Spartan villa, with no a/c, and a terrible case of insomnia. So, at around 1:00 a.m., in this darkened abode, all alone, I watched it – and was promptly freaked the fuck out.
While most films in the haunting arena play for jump scares, The Changeling begins to slowly burn from the moment viewers are introduced to the Victorian mansion in which much of the picture is set. From that point the resident ghost is in complete control, doing everything possible to rattle new tenant John Russell (George C. Scott). John moved into the Seattle estate following the death of his wife and daughter in a freak accident in upstate New York. A composer by trade, John has retreated across the country to work on his music in solitude, but the quiet is broken when loud banging wakes him up every morning at 6:00 a.m. on the dot. Then, John finds running water in the house and follows it to a bathroom, where he sees a boy drowning in the tub. But when he reopens the door there is nothing.
John eventually uncovers a hidden room within the house, boarded up and forgotten. Inside, he finds a small wheelchair, desk, and a music box… playing the same melody as the one he has been composing. John understands there is a ghost in the house but he is in no rush to leave; in fact, he thinks the spirit is trying to communicate. A couple of bone-chilling incidents – the red ball – cause John to seek out a medium to conduct a séance. Claire (Trish Van Devere), a local historian, offers to help John search for further clues related to the people who once owned the mansion. Soon, John learns of the person behind the occurrences and his subsequent investigation uncovers a shocking story.
That red ball. I don’t want to give away anything but there is a scene involving a benign red ball that, even thinking of it now, produces some of the most hair-raising chills a film has ever given me. Because I’m such a horror fan my friends constantly ask, “What movies actually DO scare you?” This one does. It isn’t just the horror of what is happening but also the reactions of the actors. A scene where Claire sees something at the top of the stairs is petrifying because the shot begins with her – and she is stone-faced frozen until a cut reveals what she sees and gives a reason for us to be afraid, too. The scares here feel authentic and earned; what occurs in the home is truly terrifying…
… which is why I have to applaud the balls on John Russell. After seeing an apparition of a drowning boy in the upstairs tub I think it’s safe to say most people would flee immediately. Not John. Even after the red ball incident, which would have stopped my heart or turned my hair into a shock of white, John stays. He still sleeps there. That séance scene is one of the most chilling ever put to film. Afterward, when everyone has gone home John sits there, alone, contemplating. The loss of his wife and daughter has galvanized his altruism and John genuinely wants to help this ghost. He isn’t afraid because he’s coming at this thing with love in his heart. But some things don’t want love, and John eventually comes to understand his role in this was more to act as a vessel of vengeance than anything else.
Peter Medak directs the hell out of this film, leaning into tropes but shooting them in such a way they feel reinvigorated and more effective than ever before. This film is often called the best ghost story of the ‘80s, a claim with which I am inclined to agree. On paper, all of the elements and plotting sound like old hat but on screen, these events are deeply disturbing. This is a picture where once the tension begins there are very few moments of safety when viewers can breathe a sigh of relief – and that lasts right up through to the credits.
Severin has wisely commissioned a new 4K remaster of the film which, until now, was only available via a poor-looking HBO DVD that is long out of print. The 1.85:1 1080p image is typical of a late’70s/early ‘80s production, with thick film grain and strong definition. Skin tones are warm and lifelike. Black levels are a touch washy but generally strong and stable. Many of the landscape shots and angles of the home look absolutely gorgeous. Fine detail is excellent in close-ups. A handful of scattered soft shots are evident but unimportant. This is an exceptional restoration and certainly one of the finest releases of the year for Severin.
Note: the transfer used here is virtually identical to the just-released edition from Second Sight in the U.K. Colors on the Severin release are a touch cooler but anyone on the fence or unsure should know you’re getting a stellar 4K remastered image either way.
A defect was found on the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack, with crucial dialogue missing, and Severin has since issued an update regarding an exchange policy. See their Facebook page for more information. The good news is that the original 2.0 stereo track is unaffected and plays just as it would have in theaters 38 years ago. Dialogue is presented cleanly though some obvious ADR work sounds, well, obvious. There is also a slight hiss present though it isn’t anything distracting. The real treat here is allowing the score to soar in lossless. You’ll be rattled. Subtitles are available in English SDH.
The old audio commentary with Peter Medak has not been included here; instead, enjoy a new commentary featuring director Peter Medak and producer Joel B. Michaels, moderated by Severin Films’ David Gregory.
The House on Cheesman Park – The Haunting True Story of The Changeling – Dr. Phil Goodstein tells the old tales of the house that inspired Russell Hunter to write the screenplay that would become this film.
The Music of The Changeling – Interview with Music Arranger Kenneth Wannberg – Although Rick Wilkins is the credited composer much of the score was written by Wannberg, along with additional uncredited work by Howard Blake (who wrote the music box theme). Here, Wannberg plays the main theme before discussing the scoring process.
Building the House of Horror – Interview with Art Director Reuben Freed – Because no suitable homes could be found Freed and his team had to build the one seen in the film. There are some good stories here.
Master of Horror – Mick Garris on The Changeling – Garris offers up his own praise and appraisal of the film.
The Psychotronic Tourist: The Changeling – This is a revisit of the filming locations.
A still gallery, trailer, and a TV spot are also included.
- BRAND NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM
- Audio Commentary With Director Peter Medak and Producer Joel B. Michaels Moderated By Severin Films’ David Gregory
- 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
- Poster & Still Gallery
- TV Spot
When a film can count Martin Scorsese among those who were frightened to the bone, it’s safe to say viewers should expect something commensurate with that statement. Medak takes all the elements of a haunted house story and molds them into a beautifully scary story about loss, love, and retribution. Severin Films scored a major feather in their cap by securing the rights to this classic and they do not disappoint with their home video release.