2018년 10월 25일 목요일

Ghost Whispers-- THE CHANGELING (1980) Blu Ray Review

THE CHANGELING. A Joel B. Michaels & Garth H. Drabinsky Production, presented by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. Canada, 1980. 1 hour 47 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1. Director: Peter Medak, Screenplay: William Gray, Diana Maddox. Story: Russell Hunter. Cinematography: John Coquillon.  Music: Rick Wilkins, Ken Wannberg. Production Design: Trevor Williams. Editor: Lilla Pedersen. Supervising Editor: Lou Lombardo.  

CAST: George C. Scott (John Russell), Trish Van Devere (Claire Norman), Melvyn Douglas (Senator Carmichael), John Colicos (Inspector De Witt), Barry Morse (Parapsychologist), Madeleine Thornton-Sherwood (Mrs. Norman), Jean Marsh (Joanna Russell), Eric Christmas (Albert), Roberta Maxwell (Eva), Helen Burns.

 


The Changeling's copyright seems to have been owned for some years by HBO, which had released it in 2000 as a serviceable but barebones DVD (apparently still in print). Parts of the film's reputation and cult status come from its rather incongruous position in the evolutionary history of North American cinematic horror: it is a serious, non-flippant ghost story in the classical mold, with no direct showing of ghosts or employment of special effects makeup (which had since become the quintessential component of any modern horror film), but released right at the cusp of the moment in which the whole genre was sliding into the low-budget blood-and-guts formula of Friday the 13th (1980) and its slasher brethren. Personally, I believe The Changeling's cult reputation rests much on the advent of cable TV, wherein the unsuspecting viewers who had entirely missed out its theatrical run could run into its late night broadcast-- and find themselves genuinely scared out of their wits, unable to immediately go back to sleep after a nail-biting viewing experience. It is precisely the kind of spook show-- like Ju-on and Videodrome (1981)-- that perhaps works better if seen in the comfort of your bedroom, preferably with dark corners of the ceiling and walls serving as the framework for the screen. The Changeling is a rather unassuming production, not really aspiring to reach the height of the top-level haunted house opuses like The Haunting (1963) or The Legend of Hell House (1973), but seen today, it surely can run rings around many more successful box office hits from the same era, such as The Amityville Horror (1979).  


The film is a stalwart foray into the orthodox horror territory by the Hungarian Peter Medak, who had scored big in English language with the outlandish black comedy The Ruling Class (1972), featuring one of Peter O'Toole's most riveting performances, and subsequently made a series of interesting and eccentric film noirs, notably The Krays (1990), Let Him Have It (1991) and Romeo Is Bleeding (1993). Mostly, his feature film career has been a mixed bag (with some unfortunate turkeys such as Species II [1998] thrown in). Much of Medak's best work has been done for television, including memorable episodes of such British and American TV shows as Space 1999, The Wire and Carnivale.

 



 

The Changeling tells the story of an American composer/music professor, John Russell, who had recently lost his wife and daughter due to a tragic car accident, relocating to Washington State (filmed in Canada, of course) for a teaching position in a local college. With help from a Historical Preservation Society representative, Claire Norman, Russell rents a sprawling Victorian mansion unoccupied for the past twelve years. Naturally, weird things happen, starting with very loud pounding noises that awaken him in the night. The phantasmagorical events escalate to Russell having visions of a young child drowning in a pool of water. He decides to dig deeper into the local history with the help of Claire, realizing that the child's ghost seems to have some secret connection to the septuagenarian Senator Carmichael, a local fat-cat who does not take kindly to a stranger digging up his family past. 

The distinctive quality of the film partially comes from having the irascible but traumatized protagonist Russell and his equally tough antagonist Senator Carmichael, played by George C. Scott and Melvyn Douglas, respectively. Scott provides a nice star turn, suitably understated for the most, and expertly conveying the befuddlement and frustration of someone attempting to communicate with, and eventually help bringing peace to, the dead spirit of a child who had lived decades ago. Douglas also gives a charismatic performance as a square-jawed, weather-bitten bigwig who refuses to believe that the specters of the past could haunt the present, and treats Russell with absolute contempt. He cannot think of any motivation for the latter to dig up potential scandals of the remote past, other than greed for money. Yet the grizzled star, following up on his Oscar-winning turn as the President-maker in Being There (1978), manages to suggest the pathos, even a sense of tragedy, behind the man's willful denials of the unconscionable truths. Senator Carmichael is not really a conventional bad guy, and we do feel sorry for his predicament to a considerable degree, when all is said and done.

Van Devere is fine in an essentially expository role. The IMDB's profile of her is rather unflattering, subsuming her career under the narrative of an aspiring actress ending up a not-quite-a-muse-for-a-great-actor via marriage to Scott. In other co-starring features I have seen, I have never gotten the sense that Scott is just keeping her around as a part of the deal, as sometimes I get from Charles Bronson movies with Jill Ireland. Indeed, one of The Changeling's scariest horror set pieces, involving the dead child's wheelchair, hinges on her acting ability to transmit abject terror to the viewers, and she does a better than acceptable job. John Colicos (an actor I still somehow associate, after all these years, with Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica) and Jean Marsh have basically one-sequence cameos but are nonetheless memorable. 

Aside from the high-powered cast delivering their goods, the Carmichael mansion set, meticulously constructed and blended in with the location-shot exteriors, is in many ways a character in and of itself. The British veteran John Coquillon (Witchfinder General [1968], Straw Dogs [1971], Absolution [1978]), working with Medak, ably captures the pools of darkness congealing in the attic corners and stairway landings, and as showcased in the remastered Severin Blu Ray's HD transfer, wrangles striking visual imageries out of the bubbling water surface of a bathtub, orange flames in the climactic conflagration, and yes, that red rubber ball bouncing down the stairs. Another great asset for the film is its measured, non-exploitative music score, based on hummable melodies composed by the noted Canadian saxophonist Rick Wilkins, and reconstituted to better fit the movie by the veteran Ken Wannberg, best known for editing John Williams scores for Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Superman franchise.

A minor complaint: this is certainly not a problem unique to The Changeling, but I find the movie's designation of the limits of the dead spirit's supernatural powers largely arbitrary. I can accept as the story premise that the boy's ghost did not make any meaningful contact with a live human being for more than seventy-five years until Russell arrived. However, after his communication with the composer, the ghost seems to rapidly grow in power. If he is capable of destroying one character via telekinetic powers outside the mansion, what stops him from simply reaching out to Senator Carmichael and killing him? If the gold medal, which the ghost directly pulls out of an old well and practically shoves under Russell's chin-- what prevented him from doing that weeks ago?--, was some kind of conduit that allowed the ghost to exercise his power over the senator, this could have been made clearer.

Perhaps the confusion and illogical behavior of the ghost is one of the points of the story: after all, he was a little boy barely capable of understanding the cruel circumstances under which he left this world. In the end, the movie's ghost never fully becomes a character, yet he is unusually sympathetic among his cinematic cohorts, given his genuinely disturbing (and fairly well thought-out) backstory. It does evoke the sense of collective guilt among the people for whom today's prosperity and complacent peace have always been built on the whitewashed sacrifices of some unknown "small people."



To reiterate, The Changeling's scares are often predictable and not particularly original, yet its set pieces are unfailingly effective without relying on a platter of big-budget Hollywood-style gimmicks. The film is safely recommended to the discerning fans of the restrained, old-fashioned haunted house thrillers, who prefer things earnest, with no tongue in cheek.


Blu Ray Presentation:

1) TC Entertainment/Studio Canal. Region A. Video: Aspect ratio, 1.85:1, 1080i. Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo. Subtitles: Japanese. Supplement: Trailer. Street date: November 5, 2014. 2) Severin Films. Region Free. Video: Aspect ratio, 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: English Dolby Digital HD 5.0, English, German, Italian and Spanish 2.0. Subtitles: English SDH. Supplements: Audio commentary with Peter Medak & Joel B. Michaels, moderated by David Gregory, documentaries The House on Cheesman Park, The music of The Changeling, Building the House of Horror, The Psychotronic Tourist episode on The Changeling, Mick Garris on The Changeling, Trailer & TV Spots, Still Gallery. Street date: August 7, 2018. Amazon list price: $20.50

The Changeling has been released as a Blu in Japan first, apparently utilizing the source provided by Studio Canal. Unfortunately it is a huge disappointment. The encoding is 1080i and badly interlaced, and overall the resolution is hardly above the level of a SD DVD. The disc includes the Japanese dubbing track recorded for its 1983 TV broadcast, a practice increasingly popular with the Japanese Blu Rays. I hope this does not indicate that the genre releases are exclusively marketed to the nostalgia seekers in the island nation.



In any case, English-speaking consumers are directed toward the powerhouse special edition Blu Ray prepared by Severin Films. The transfer is 4-K remastered from camera negatives (identical elements seem to have been used for the British Second Sight Blu Ray, not reviewed here). The details and contrast levels are massive improvements over the pale and blurry Japanese version, although those who remember the movie from VHS tapes and DVDs might feel that the Blu Ray version appears considerably darker, with its color scheme just a tiny bit tilted toward blue and magenta. The audio is not spectacular but manages to properly present its competent sound design and the delicately atmospheric music score. I am not sure what the sources of European language tracks are (could be TV broadcast dubs, like the Japanese Blu Ray's own dub track), but it is nice to have them included.

I am not sure whether Severin's transfer accurately reproduces the theatre-going experience circa 1980, but it certainly gives the Home Theater consumers the best option of watching this film currently available.


The supplements are very well stocked and professionally curated. Top of the list is the audio commentary recorded by director Peter Medak and producer Joel Michaels. Aside from the usual anecdotal information about production history, we also find out that Medak is quite proud of this old-fashioned shocker, and that many filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, have expressed their fondness or admiration for it. The House on Cheeseman Park is a rather amusing documentary that examines a real-life haunted house in Denver, Colorado, that allegedly inspired The Changeling. The wealth of information about this house and its residents is told with eccentric gusto by a public historian Phil Goldstein (Not surprisingly, the narrative of a child ghost haunting the house on Cheesman Park told by Russell Hunter, a music arranger for CBS-TV, seems to have been largely fictional: Denver Public Library actually has an article examining the veracity of Hunter's claims, linked here). Other short-form docus examine Ken Wannberg's musical contributions, Art Director Reuben Freed's construction of the highly realistic stage interior, and the location spots. Mick Garris's short appreciation of the film, plus still gallery and promotional materials round out the robust special edition supplements. Severin has also released 5,000 embossed-slipcase limited edition units with the CD soundtrack included as a bonus, and they are still available from various retailers as of today [October 25, 2018].




*Japanese TC Entertainment/Studio Canal Blu Ray screenshot















*Severin Films Blu Ray screenshot

It had taken some years before we finally received a deserving Blu Ray presentation, but I am glad Severin was able to nab the rights to The Changeling. Their special edition Blu Ray must be counted as one of the more notable vintage horror HD releases of 2018.