New on Blu: THE CHANGELING Review

As the tax shelter era drew to a close in the early 1980s, Canadian film started to display a level of polish and professionalism that far outstripped the rough-and-tumble exploitation films of the 1970s. To appreciate just how far Canadian film had evolved over the past decade, you don’t have to look much farther than Peter Medak’s haunted house flick THE CHANGELING (1981), a still-potent chiller boasting dramatic effects and a memorable performance from George C. Scott. Despite the film’s ongoing importance to Canadian horror, it has, until a recent 4K Blu-ray upgrade from genre specialists Severin Films, received only disappointing home video releases.

Scott stars as music composer John Russell, who rents a large mansion in Seattle following the accidental death of his wife and daughter. But the solitude he seeks is soon interrupted–the house is plagued by paranormal disturbances, including early morning banging, self-filling bathtubs and a rubber ball that mysteriously bounces down the estate’s grand staircase. After discovering a boarded-up room containing a child’s notebook and a small wooden wheelchair, Russell attempts to uncover the house’s history with the help of a woman from the local historical society (Trish Van Devere). Just when he thinks he has it figured out, a seance reveals that the ghostly presence may be even more complicated–and malevolent–than anyone first thought.

Based (loosely!) on a true story, the film is richly dramatic and haunted by an intense and tragic mysteriousness, as Scott’s character pushes forward with his research and eventually connects the ghostly happenings with the strange circumstances of a well-connected political family. The film’s most horrific moments–including the seance, an attack by the empty child’s wheelchair and the fiery conclusion–are relentlessly tense and gripping, and help place the film alongside celebrated classic Hollywood ghost films like THE HAUNTING (1963) and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973).

An early feather in the cap for producer and one-time Canadian entertainment wunderkind Garth Drabinksy, THE CHANGELING has only improved with age, and you can fully appreciate this subtle and sophisticated genre take thanks to Severin’s excellent Blu-ray. It’s important to note that some technical issues have plagued the release–a few moments of missing audio were dropped on the 5.1 mix and, on the replacement discs meant to correct this error, it appears a slightly less-pristine video master was inadvertently included. Despite this, the currently available replacement disc looks and sounds excellent, and is certainly a major improvement over the previous 2005 HBO DVD release.

Extras are plentiful as well. Severin Films’ David Gregory moderates a commentary track with Medak and producer Joel B. Michaels who offer up many behind-the-scenes stories behind the film that help give additional context. There are also shorter video interviews with music arranger Kenneth Wannberg and art director Reuben Freed that help illustrate the level of craft that was starting to appear in Canadian film at the time. A “Psychotronic Tourist” extra revisits familiar locations from the film, most of which was shot in Vancouver, and filmmaker Mick Garris also provides a short appreciation of the film’s importance. The most interesting addition is probably “The House on Cheesman Park,” an extra that reveals the strange real life story that THE CHANGELING is based on, as presented by an excitable local historian. Rounding out the package are the standard image galleries and trailers.

Anyone interested in Canadian genre films (or the classic ghost films of horror cinema) will want to check out this definitive Blu-ray edition. Despite the imperfect presentation, Severin has done a fine service on bringing this recently neglected classic back into the annals of horror history with the context needed to properly appreciate it. THE CHANGELING is an essential addition to any collection–but just be careful if one day you notice it has come bouncing down the stairs after you.