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Retro Review: THE CHANGELING (1980)

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THE CHANGELING
(Canada - 1980)

Directed by Peter Medak. Written by William Gray and Diana Maddox. Cast: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh, John Colicos, Barry Morse, Madeleine Thornton-Sherwood, Helen Burns, Frances Hyland, Ruth Springford, Eric Christmas, Roberta Maxwell, Bernard Behrens, J. Kenneth Campbell, Michelle Martin. (R, 107 mins)

Though a huge success in its native Canada, the tax shelter-era haunted house chiller THE CHANGELING was released to middling box office in the US in the spring of 1980, sandwiched between the previous year's megahit THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and the soon-to-be-released THE SHINING. While it didn't really find an audience in American theaters, it gained a strong cult following on cable and in video stores throughout the decade. Time has been kind to THE CHANGELING, and it's held in high regard today and belongs near the top of any short list of great haunted house horror movies, often mentioned in the same breath as 1963's THE HAUNTING and 1973's THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. In a year where the horror genre was dominated by the controversy and game-changing impact of FRIDAY THE 13TH and the explosion of the slasher film, THE CHANGELING, directed by versatile career journeyman Peter Medak (THE RULING CLASS), brought a level of class and respectability thanks to the presence of revered, award-winning actors like George C. Scott and Melvyn Douglas and a notable lack of gore, exploitation, or even gratuitous post-EXORCIST/OMEN demonic histrionics (though one minor supporting character dies an OMEN-esque death late in the film). Even in 1980, THE CHANGELING felt like a bit of a throwback that didn't quite go in the direction that horror was trending, which may have diminished its commercial appeal then but almost certainly helped contribute to its ability to stand the test of time and remain as chillingly effective nearly 30 years later. The film has never been ideally represented on home video until now, thanks to Severin's recent Blu-ray release, which finally gives this classic the loving presentation it so richly deserves.






After his wife Joanna (Jean Marsh) and daughter Kathy (Michelle Martin) are tragically killed in a horrific road accident, music professor and composer John Russell (Scott) leaves NYC and moves to Seattle for a teaching position at his alma mater. Still grieving and looking for privacy and place to compose music, Russell rents the long-abandoned Chessman House, a massive, isolated Victorian mansion that's owned by the local historical society. It's more space than he needs, but there's a large music room with a grand piano, and he appears to be settling in until he's awakened every morning at 6:00 am by a loud banging that the caretaker writes off to the house having an "old furnace." Soon, there's strange sounds, doors slamming, faucets turning themselves on, and a brief apparition of a boy drowned in a bathtub. One historical society matron informs him "That house doesn't want people," criticizing society rep Claire Norman's (Trish Van Devere, Scott's wife) decision to lease the house to Russell. After other inexplicable instances--the discovery of a secret, hidden room, Russell finding a music box in the attic with a melody identical to the one he's been composing, and Kathy's ball bouncing down the steps, prompting him to throw it in a nearby river only to be greeted by the same, dripping wet ball bouncing down the steps to welcome him when he returns home--Russell and Claire make arrangements for a seance where the medium (Helen Burns) establishes contact with a restless spirit residing in the house and unable to find peace. At first, Russell assumes it's his daughter trying to make contact with him, but the spirit soon reveals itself to be a boy named Joseph who was killed in the house in 1906. What follows is a labyrinthine conspiracy mixing the paranormal and the political, especially once the events are brought to the attention of wealthy and powerful Senator Carmichael (Douglas), who seems to hold the key to the secret of what happened at the Chessman House over 70 years earlier and desperately wants to keep that truth buried.


THE CHANGELING is an absolutely terrifying film that's not easily shaken, with numerous spine-tingling scenes that stay with you and more than a few passing references to staple of the Italian horror and gialli (the central character being a composer, an old house with a horrible secret, the existence of a walled-up room where something unspeakable occurred). The believable performance of Scott keeps the film grounded and gives it an indisputable degree of seriousness and gravitas that a younger actor and character would've lacked. Scott's casting also links it to the then-trendy genre trope of aging Hollywood leading men doing horror (Gregory Peck in THE OMEN, William Holden in DAMIEN: OMEN II, Kirk Douglas in THE FURY, Charlton Heston in THE AWAKENING, etc), but the PATTON Oscar-winner plays it totally straight and never once conveys the feeling that the material is beneath him (for example, as great as it was, Peck wasn't that enthused about being in THE OMEN, and Holden only did the sequel after turning down the role that went to Peck and seeing what a blockbuster it became). The venerable Melvyn Douglas is also marvelous as the ailing politico with a dark secret. With a distinguished acting career that dated back to 1928, Douglas was coming off of his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1979's BEING THERE (he also won for 1963's HUD) but certainly didn't phone it in for THE CHANGELING. The frail, 79-year-old actor can be seen late in the film slowly ascending a staircase that's engulfed in flames in a truly startling shot that wouldn't even be attempted today without the extensive deployment of unconvincing CGI ("Fucking Melvyn...he did it," Medak gushes on the Blu-ray's commentary track). A tireless workhorse to the end, Douglas died in August 1981, with his final two films released posthumously: the Peter Straub adaptation GHOST STORY (which teamed him with fellow legends Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and John Houseman) hit theaters in December 1981, while the little-seen Roger Vadim caper comedy THE HOT TOUCH received a very spotty release much later in December 1982.


Like THE SHINING, which would be in theaters two months later, or any great ghost story for that matter, THE CHANGELING gets a ton of atmosphere out its haunted central location, in this case the expansive Chessman House, represented by an exterior facade and built on three-story soundstage at a Vancouver production facility at the cost of $500,000. While lacking the hypnotic Steadicam effect of what Stanley Kubrick accomplished with THE SHINING, Medak still uses the house's endless corridors and maze-like structure to maximize tension and terror, even featuring one of the best horror movie staircases this side of PSYCHO. 1972's THE RULING CLASS hailed the Hungarian-born Medak as a major new talent, but the disastrous, long-shelved 1973 Peter Sellers comedy GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN immediately derailed him. He's alternated between TV and film for his entire career, job-hopping on a diverse list of TV staples like SPACE: 1999, HART TO HART, REMINGTON STEELE, MAGNUM P.I., FAERIE TALE THEATER, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, LAW & ORDER: SVU, THE WIRE, HOUSE, BREAKING BAD, and HANNIBAL. After THE CHANGELING, Medak floundered on the big screen in the '80s with misfires like ZORRO, THE GAY BLADE and THE MEN'S CLUB, but he enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in the early 1990s with a trio of acclaimed crime thrillers with THE KRAYS, LET HIM HAVE IT, and ROMEO IS BLEEDING before settling back into hired-gun mode with the likes of SPECIES II. The now-80-year-old Medak also directed the upcoming documentary THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS, chronicling the chaotic shooting and colossal failure of GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN, which has clearly haunted him over the years like the spirit of Joseph in the Chessman House.


THE CHANGELING opening in
Toledo, OH on April 25, 1980. 



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