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Thursday, August 2, 2018

THE CHANGELING -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

One of the last of the "pure" ghost stories to appear on the big screen, 1980's THE CHANGELING (Severin Films) is noteworthy for its intent to send chills up and down our spines without resorting to any graphic violence or gore, and with hardly a jump scare to be found.  

The premise, reportedly based on actual events, is simple: composer and music teacher John Russell (George C. Scott), deeply grieving the tragic loss of his wife and daughter, moves into a massive old mansion that turns out to be haunted.

His raw emotional state seems to attract a troubled spirit within the house, which reaches out to him.  As frightening paranormal events continue to frazzle his nerves and ours, John and a sympathetic lady friend, Claire (Scott's real-life wife Trish Van Devere), endeavor to solve the mystery behind whoever may have died violently in the house and is now a restless and potentially dangerous supernatural entity.

There's a vaguely Argento quality to this setup (DEEP RED comes to mind), but director Peter Medak (ROMEO IS BLEEDING, THE KRAYS) intends to scare us using only images and situations rather than shocking violence or gouts of blood.  It's like a campfire tale that's effective because of evocative storytelling alone.

Still, the visuals are key, especially the huge, three-storey mansion that's so full of deep shadows, long passageways, endless stairways, and one of those hidden rooms accidentally discovered by our hero which is creepy, cobwebby, and stocked with disturbing clues including a child's ancient wheelchair. (A couple of ghostly manifestations are also highly effective.)

George C. Scott, of course, is about as good in the role as anyone could be, revealing the occasional insight into John Russell's unending grief while giving the impression that he's much too rational and in control to let a little thing like a haunted house scare him away.

Indeed, it's the intrigue of the murder mystery he's stumbled upon that keeps him there--when most of us would be out the door at the first errant creak--along with a growing sympathy for the ghostly, unknown victim of whatever terrible crime occurred there.

To this end, Russell and Claire enlist the aid of a female medium and her husband/assistant for a late night seance which proves to be one of the film's eeriest sequences.

Further clues in the mystery later lead them to tear up the floorboards of a nearby house where they discover an abandoned well which may hide a horrible secret. This is dark stuff from which director Medak derives every possible shivery scare.

Medak's visual style is mostly low-key and formal, with very little use of handheld camera and, at times, a bit of the coldness of Cronenberg's early work.  The influence on later ghost stories such as THE OTHERS is clear, as both films show a reliance on the supernatural as well as a bleak, shadow-strewn setting in evoking fear the old-fashioned way.

The film does herald an unfortunate future trend in ghost stories, which is the use of loud noises and sometimes raucous visuals in order to elevate the fear factor.  One of the eeriest scenes in the film uses neither--John is sitting at his piano, unaware that a door behind him is slowly opening. We expect the maid or handyman to be standing there when it swings open wide, but there's no one there at all.

THE CHANGELING resorts to sound and fury mostly during the finale, adding wind and fire effects and slow-motion for no apparent reason except to give us something to occupy our attention after the mystery has already been resolved and the actual scare factor pretty much faded out.

In fact, it has always been this final segment of the film that I found most unsatisfying ever since my first viewing during its initial theatrical run in 1980. But one or two people in the group I saw it with found it deeply frightening throughout.

This indicates that some, such as myself, will find THE CHANGELING a mostly, if not completely, effective old-fashioned ghost story with more than its share of chills but a not-quite-effective conclusion.  And others will sit in rapt, fearful, goose-pimpled thrall, holding their breath till the last flickering frame. 

Buy it from Severin Films

Special Features:
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


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