The Changeling Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
A Manhattan composer named John Russell (George C. Scott) is consumed by grief after his wife and daughter are killed in a shocking accident. But, when he moves to a secluded Victorian mansion, he will finds himself haunted by a paranormal entity that may unleash an even more disturbing secret. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
In an era when the broadening popularity of horror films had caused major critical backlash and studio standoffishness, Peter Medak’s The Changeling was a scary movie that it was ‘okay to like.’ However, despite the accolades, Medak’s film was also largely lost between the prestige horror of the ‘70s and the slasher-happy ‘80s. As a result, the road to cult status was waylaid by a lengthy stretch on home video.
The enduring appeal of The Changeling is found in its perpetually melancholic mood – an aspect Medak borrowed from class-act ‘70s horror, along with the supposed fact that it is based on a true story and last-act turn into political intrigue. Unlike William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) or Stuart Rosenberg’s Amityville Horror (1979), the ‘real events’ behind writer Russell Hunter’s story (he shares credit with screenwriters William Gray & Diana Maddox) were his own experiences, rather than popular tabloid fodder. This helps to focus the story’s themes and avoid unwanted comparisons to the schlocky true crime claims of B-movies. The Changeling is built on barely bygone traditions, but still managed to look ahead to the ways that ghost stories would change in the future. For example, similar, but nonetheless more popular movies from the early ‘80s, such as Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) and Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1982, based on Frank De Felitta’s 1978 novel), further explored the science of supernatural hauntings, as well as the contributions from mediums/psychics. More recent hauntings, from J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007) to Jennifer Kent’s Babadook (2014), have taken The Changeling’s most cohesive theme of mourning and grief to heart (though Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now  did cover similar ground almost a decade earlier).
Though the film’s critics (including myself) will call the film’s pacing “deliberate,'' Medak really can’t be accused of wasting his audience’s time. Instead, he endeavours to keep us invested in the believability of the characters and location. If anything, the film’s greatest weakness is that the last act’s more visceral scares sometimes feel cheap against the emotionally honesty of George C. Scott’s likeable portrayal (possibly his most likeable portrayal?) and the slow-burn dread of cinematographer John Coquillon’s simple environmental photography. A few ham-handed moments aside, the gradual build rarely feels excessive, thanks to editor Lilla Pederson’s abrupt cutting techniques, which both generates unease and efficiently moves the story. The Hungarian-born, UK-based Medak is a stalwart director who made a number of near-classics in a number of genres over his 50-plus year career, including The Ruling Class (1972), Zorro, The Gay Blade (1981), and The Krays (1990). He also made plenty of duds (Species II, 1998) and mediocrities (Pontiac Moon, 1994), but what makes his current career interesting is his habit of working on some of the greatest TV shows of the last two decades, including The Wire, House, Breaking Bad, and Hannibal.
As I mentioned, home video helped The Changeling develop a lasting fanbase. The first stateside DVD was a barebones disc from HBO Films in 2000. That same DVD seems to have been reissued in 2005, but that was about it, outside of German and Dutch disc that included a commentary track. The first ever Blu-ray is coming out almost simultaneously in the US via Severin and the UK via Second Sight, but Severin’s disc is hitting stores a week sooner, so I suppose they win the title of ‘Blu-ray debut.’ Severin’s transfer was created using a 4K scan of the original interpositive film element. I don’t have the Second Sight disc to compare, but the general assumption, based on specs and the close release dates, is that both companies are working from the same scan. The obvious challenge for this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is Coquillon’s super-dark compositions. Some of these are simply too dark for the restoration to pull any information from the negative, but, on average, the contrast is balanced enough to avoid crush and hot spots. The condition of the interpositive is decent – there aren’t any major print damage artifacts, like scratches, tears, or burns – but the footage is a bit dirty. This causes discoloration to grain during daylight sequences and minor noise throughout the highlights during dim sequences. I imagine that a better source may be discovered some day, but, given the film’s style, moderate price tag, and the era it was released, the grainier moments aren’t worth getting worked up about. Colors are rich with punchy red highlights, cool exteriors, and warm interiors. There are minor bleeding effects throughout red and orange edges and some of the blue tinting leaks into the white levels during brighter scenes.
Severin has included the original stereo soundtrack alongside a new 5.1 remix and both are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. The remix isn’t entirely necessary and largely maintains the original track’s inherent stereo movement, though it centers dialogue and compacts the sound field a bit, for good and ill. The stereo mix is considerably louder; however, it also has a higher sound floor and suffers from a bit of hiss. Either way, the dynamic ranges between soft set-ups and jarring scares work and there’s very little distortion during noisy bursts. Most of the inconsistencies in clarity and volume that pop up throughout the dialogue and effects tracks appear to be inherent issues with the original material. These largely match between the two tracks, though they’re slightly mitigated in 5.1. Composer Rick Wilkins’ spooky score and the plentiful diegetic music (the lead character is a composer and music teacher, afterall) follows suit in that it has more range in stereo, but more warmth and neater placement in 5.1.
Commentary with director Peter Medak and producer Joel B. Michaels – This is not the older director commentary heard on European releases, but a brand new Severin track, hosted by David Gregory and also featuring producer Joel B. Michaels. Medak has plenty to say about the production and takes the lead, leaving Michaels to fill in some of the blanks and Gregory to do his typically strong job of leading the discussion with well-placed questions. There are a few dips in momentum, but very little blank space.
The House on Cheesman Park: The Haunting True Story of The Changeling (17:31, HD) – Author/historian Dr. Phil Goodstein leads us through the supposed true story behind the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion (based in Denver, not Seattle) that inspired the film. In reality, the scary happenings were apparently the fault of Cheesman Park being filled with unmarked graves going back to the 19th Century. Just about everything beyond that is taken from Russell Hunter’s original recounts, followed by further stories of hauntings after the mansion was demolished.
The Music of The Changeling (8:59, HD) – Music arranger Kenneth Wannberg performs some of the film’s compositions, recalls early experiences with John Williams, and working with Wilkins on The Changeling.
Building the House of Horror (10:56, Hd) – Art director Reuben Freed talks about becoming a set designer on Canadian television (it was meant to be a stepping stone to directing documentaries), being recruited for feature films, the process of building and designing interior sets for The Changeling, and decorating the outdoor locations to match.
Master of Horror Mick Garris on The Changeling (5:31, HD) – The horror fan, expert, and director of some not great Stephen King TV adaptations offers a short primer on Medak’s career, his appreciation of The Changeling, and hiring Mendak to direct an episode of Masters of Horror ( The Washingtonians, 2007).
The Psychotronic Tourist: The Changeling (16:02, HD) – House of Psychotic Women author (pub: 2012) Kier-La Janisse, Fangoria’s Michael Gingold, We Are Still Here (2015) director Ted Geoghegan, makeup artist/director Ryan Nicholson ( Gutterballs, 2008), and SIFF programmer Clinton McClung host what I assume will be a series of featurettes that will tour real-world settings for famous horror films. The location visits include some of the Vancouver, New York, and Seattle landmarks seen throughout the film.
Trailer and TV spot
There is also a Limited Edition Severin collection that includes an exclusive slipcover and CD soundtrack.
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