BR: Changeling, The (1980)

October 13, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Severin Films / Unobstructed View

Region: All

Released:  August 7, 2018

Genre:  Horror / Supernatural Thriller / CanCon

Synopsis: After the sudden death of his wife & daughter, a composer makes the serious mistake in renting a mansion, haunted by the spirit of a murdered boy.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with director Peter Medak and co-producer Joel B. Michaels, moderated by David Gregory / 2 Making-Of Featurettes: “The House On Cheesman Park: The Haunting True Story Of The Changeling” (17:31) + “The Psychotronic Tourist: The Changeling” (16:01) /  3 Interviews: “The Music Of The Changeling: Interview with music arranger Kenneth Wannberg” (8:57) + “Building The House Of Horror: Interview with art director Reuben Freed” (10:53) + “Master of Horror Mick Garris On The Changeling” (5:30) / Poster & Still Gallery / Trailer & TV Spot / Limited Bonus Soundtrack CD (29 tracks / 66:09) +  O-Sleeve with first 5000 copies.




While based in U.S., Canadian producer Joel B. Michaels received an audiotape in which a man recounted a truly strange and disturbing ghost story, and the proposed narrative left a deep enough impression that Michaels and partner Garth Drabinsky bought the rights from playwright / composer Russell Hunter, and had William Gray (The Philadelphia Experiment) and Diana Maddox (The Amateur) adapt the material into a screenplay, with further tweaking by other writers to retain the original story’s classical tone (read: not slasher).

Although reportedly a replacement for director Donald Cammell (Performance, Demon Seed, White of the Eye), who left due to ‘creative differences,’ Peter Medak was sought out based on the cult status and acting pedigree of his features The Ruling Class (1972) and The Day in the Life of Joe Egg (1972), and his eerie TV version of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rocking Horse Winner (1977), which, similar to the 1949 feature film, dealt with paranormal influences.


A Rocking Horse: Portents of a Dark Ride

Apparently part of a ‘Classics Dark and Dangerous’ series co-produced by HFV Bristol and OECA (Ontario Educational Communications Authority) Toronto and distributed by Learning Corporation of America, the low budget half-hour production updated the tale from a family of five to three, and transposed the characters to a sprawling estate which an emotionally dead mother (Angela Thorne) refuses to abandon in spite of its outrageous maintenance costs.

Medak’s film retains Lawrence’s core story of a boy (Nigel Rhodes) who rides a rocking horse for long periods to ‘see’ the winner at an upcoming horse derby, and the luck that enables him, his uncle (Kenneth More), and the gardener (Chris Harris) to reap exponential wads of cash which the son uses to prop up his mother’s foolish dream of upscale home ownership.

Julian Bond’s script is hampered by precious dialogue, and the early scenes have awkward edits which sometimes retain the lesser dramatic segments of its uneven cast, but the scenes in which the boy ascends to his room and rides the horse are very eerie. Medak creates the illusion of the boy’s ride throughout the room using simple practical tricks, and although Paul Lewis’ score varies between discrete and cloying, it’s the sound effects which enhance the riding montages, evoking both the house’s hunger for ‘more money’ and the boy’s intense riding until he ‘hears’ the name of the winning horse.

If producers Michaels and Drabinski weren’t pricked by the short film’s elements of a possessed house, a tormented child, and tragedy, then Medak’s use of light, shadow, oppressive wide angles, and sound design certainly stood out – they’re the sole moments that transcend the otherwise grating, wafer-thin characters of the boy’s mother and his ever-barking father (Peter Cellier).


The Composer, a Child, and a Bouncing Ball

The Changeling was shot primarily in Vancouver and Victoria, with some location in Seattle and New York City, and although theatrical distributor AFD (Associated Film Distribution) had promised a good release, the film didn’t receive the kid glove treatment in spite of positive audience response, and through its subsequent home video and TV airings The Changeling earned a reputation as a one of the finest ghost stories ever made, deserving a spot on the mantle besides genre classics The Uninvited (1944), The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), and The Legend of Hell House (1973).

Even after the lengthy wave of 1980s gory drive-in shockers and the slasher craze (writer Gray penned the CanCon classiques Prom Night and Humungous; co-writer Diana Maddox The Amateur for the producers), The Changeling still retained respect from genre fans because of its unnerving story of a concert pianist / professor who discovers his rented house harbors the angry spirit of a murdered child. Rather than flee, he seeks the origins of strange sounds and coincidences (recurring booms & reverberations, a newly composed piece influenced from beyond), and the backstory of the boy whose death is tied to a wealthy industrialist – the only person who knows the dark family secret.

That’s ostensibly the plot, but the pre-credit sequence immediately sets the tone of the film somber investigative hero: after John Russell (George C. Scott, fresh off the cheerful Hardcore) watches in horror as a truck mows down his wife (Jean Marsh) and daughter, he pulls out of his memory-drenched apartment and moves to Seattle, where he rents a local heritage property and accepts a teaching position at a university. Russell’s grief allows the ghost to exploits and tease the vulnerable tenant, and after a séance, Russell becomes an ally and amateur sleuth, putting together assorted clues to link the home’s former owner, Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), to the boy’s murder.

The boy doesn’t become a surrogate child for Russell, but as a father, he’s deeply affected by the child’s mysterious death, and frustrated, shouting ‘What do you want?’ to the unruly ghost when new evidence fails to appease. Only direct confrontation between the victim and the benefactor of his death will satisfy, leading to a fantastically choreographed fire.

As the film’s striking poster details, the boy’s fragile frame moved about in a tiny wheelchair that (naturally) becomes a prop used to terrorize Russell and Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere, aka Mrs. George C. Scott), the heritage estate agent with whom he strikes up a friendship and potential romance. The best sequences, however, don’t involve elaborate effects but a superb combination of visual and audio edits, context, and motifs – much like a finely crafted concert piece.

The first involves a bouncing rubber ball, which Medak uses to link the past, present, and the dead boy’s assertion he can affect Russell’s future, if not steer him away from tackling his own grief. As Russell moves out of his old apartment, a tumbling ball is used to connect the joyful past with his wife & daughter to the coldness of the now-empty living room, cleared of memories and warm lighting. His grasping and handling of the ball after the move inhibits any degree of closure, so he tosses it off a bridge where it should disappear into watery oblivion… but on a night when Claire visits, the ball returns, wet, and hopping down the stairs… a clear signal from the boy that Russell will not be permitted to move forward until he helps the boy’s quest for justice.

The second vital sequence is the séance in which a medium (Helen Burns) makes contact in what seems like a peculiar yet benign routine: using a pencil, she scribbles lines akin to a polygraph, with an assistant shifting clean sheets until the boy sends sort-of coherent replies.

Both sequences are exceptional examples of using editing over elaborate visual effects, but the séance is unique for following a classical structure with familiar elements – wind, breaking glass, shocked visages – but the editing is very modern, evolving to a series of slightly abstract visual slashes, heightening the tension of the medium’s increasingly vicious scribbles until there’s an emotional (and sonic) collision. Editor Lila Pedersen’s sole credits are The Changeling, Big Meat Eater (1982), and the TV movie Seasons in the Sun (1986), while supervising editor Lou Lombardo cut Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).

Medak may well have influenced the film’s modern editing style, in which he tends to cut away from cliché and any fat in favour of atmosphere: case in point in Russell’s first lecture where he addresses the university class, and plays a few bars of his latest piece. Rather than allow us to hear the composer’s work, there’s an abrupt cut to the finale of a classical concert attended by Russell, where he meets Claire for the second time, and the two discuss the weirdness of the house.

The director also exploits Jean Coquillon’s knack for filming beautiful yet gritty images that give those films a slight documentary quality. The film grain adds to the docu-drama texture, as does the natural lighting, especially in the fantastic set that is the haunted mansion. Pieces of real carpentry from old houses were used to form the interior of an aged set, and Medak frequently has the camera tracking and crawling through doorways, entering or passing through parlors.

Some bravura movements include a single take where Russell plays what’s supposed to be a newly inspired piece, which begins on a moving reel-to-reel tape recorder and pulls back to reveal his intense face, his playing, and the room, then pulling back to a calm, neatly framed shot which we expect will be interrupted by a shock (which does come a few moments later).

Additionally, the visual shock from the wet bouncing ball doesn’t necessarily come from sounds nor any cutaways. Medak has Coquillon follow a sedate conversation between Russell and Claire. As she finishes her point, the camera follows her into the stairwell, and in a perfectly timed and performed moment, it’s her reaction to the descending ball that hits the audience more forcefully; it’s only after her words are silenced by utter fear and her eyes widen that Medak makes a cut to the descending orb.

The much-praised wheelchair chase is equally fun, but it’s also the punctuation to Russell’s ongoing exploration of the house’s secrets, of which we’re participants. Part of a good ghost story is establishing the drawing power of the house itself, and following the inquisitive interloper as he or she stumbles upon, pokes into, and creeps through disused doorways and passages to reach forgotten or walled-off secret rooms. By showing us the geography of the murky lair, we become more aware of the limitations & dangers facing Russell as he snoops too deep.

The great Ken Wannberg was tasked with arranging a music box theme by Howard Blake (The Duellists, Amityville3-D) and main thematic material by Rick Wilkins into a truly chilling score that emphasizes the mass of unrest within the house; the dead boy’s mounting impatience & rage; and Russell, trapped in a state of limbo until the child’s vengeance finally releases him and allows the composer to deal with his own grief.


The Blu-ray Extras

As a producer during the 1980s, Joel Michaels sought to made classy productions which transcended the image of a CanCon production – a movie often made to meet the basic requirements for investors to enjoy a sweet tax break. These tax shelter productions did boost the country’s output, but a lot of mediocre material tainted the image of Canadian cinema, especially with sleepwalking American, international, or Canadian-born stars. The Changeling and especially the dark bank heist The Silent Partner (1978) remain highpoints in their respective genres because of the talent gathered by Michaels and Drabinsky, strong production values, great use of locations, and an edginess which bleeds from the best of the CanCon films, much in the way a certain cruelty, unexpected plot twists, and stunning use of locations and widescreen cinematography typify the best ozploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s.

Severin’s Blu-ray sports a commentary with Michaels, moderator David Gregory, and Medak (whose career is tangentially spotlighted). The trio cover the bulk of the film’s genesis, production, its fine Canadian talent pool, and stars Scott and Douglas (who was a year away from his final film, the start-studded Ghost Story).

Featurerres include a composer interview with Wannberg (who also adapted Oscar Petersen’s music for Silent Partner, and wrote a great score for Philadelphia Experiment); an interview with art director Reuben Freed (Porky’s, Palais Royale, Gnaw – Food of the Gods II) who elaborates on the stunning set and the chilling façade of the haunted house; and a short piece with Mick Garris, for whom Medak directed the episode “The Washingtonians” for Masters of Horror, Season 2).

Kier La Janisse’s tour of key film locations is informative but a little choppy, but perhaps the most unlikely piece de resistance among the extras is Dr. Phil Goodstein, who recounts the tale of the house rented by the real Russell (Russell Ellis / aka Russell Hunter) on Chessman Park. It’s a strangely told narrative with a quirky, intense delivery that seems initially eccentric & apocryphal until weird & creepy aspects of the park start to tie in with some of the most cinematic shocks. Best to save this gem for the last before turning out the lights for bedtime.

The soundtrack album was previously released in 2001 by Percepto Records as a single disc (73 mins.) and later 2-disc set in 2007 (85 mins.), and Severin’s limited bonus disc run seems to be a curated selection of cues that runs slightly shorter (29 tracks / 66 mins.) than the first Percepto CD. There are no track titles, but it’s a good representation of Wannberg’s excellent writing & arrangements, co-recorded by Eric Tomlinson, one of the best recording engineers for soundtracks in Britain. (A prior interview with Tomlinson on the restoration of The Battle with Britain soundtrack is available via the archives.)

Britain’s Second Sight Films released their own region-free BR which uses the same 4K transfer & extras (such as the spoiler-laden trailer, linked below) plus a reversible sleeve; the limited slipcase edition has the soundtrack CD, foldout poster, reversible sleeve art, and a 40-page bound booklet featuring an essay by Kevin Lyons and archival production ephemera.

Unique to the 2002 Momentum Region 2 DVD is a solo commentary by Medak.

Note to collectors: Severin’s first pressing featured a flaw in the otherwise nicely remixed 5.1 track + a flaw in the CD, and soon after the release offered replacements with corrected discs. (See the company’s Facebook post.)



During the 2000s, Peter Medak worked exclusively in TV, but before the mess that is Species II (1998), he made two of the finest British crime films, the biography of The Krays (1990) and the anti-capital punishment drama Let Him have It (1991), plus the underrated neo-noir Romeo is Bleeding (1993). His work in horror includes 7 episodes of the first Twilight Zone reboot (1985-1987), and Hannibal (2013-2014).

Joel Michaels’ other productions include Universal Soldier (1992), Stargate (1994), the ill-fated Cutthroat Island (1995), and the disappointing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). Partner Garth Drabinsky soon went into theatrical distribution, co-founding the Cineplex chain and Livent before departing under ignominious circumstances. He returned to producing the occasional TV series and feature film, including the underrated The Gospel of John (2003) and Half Light (2006), the latter produced with Michaels.

Executive producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna would strike gold with Canadian director Ted Kotcheff with the Sylvester Stallone action & revenge classic First Blood (1982), seeding their own production empire, Carolco Pictures.

Jean Coquillon’s horror gems include Witchfinder General (1968), Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), The Oblong Box (1969), and Sam Peckinpah’s grueling Straw Dogs (1971), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Cross of Iron (1977), and The Osterman Weekend (1983).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan







External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmographies: Howard Blake / Ken Wannberg / Rick Wilkins
Vendor Search Links:

Amazon Canada —  Amazon USA —  Amazon UK



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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