When it comes to the perfect haunted house films, horror aficionados usually list a handful of reliable classics. There’s 1944’s “The Uninvited,” starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey; 1961’s “The Innocents,” where Deborah Kerr takes on Henry James’ iconic ghost story “The Turn of the Screw”; and there’s 1963’s “The Haunting,” a pitch-perfect adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s tale of a truly diabolical haunted house.
However, 1980’s “The Changeling” often gets left out of this conversation — but there’s a reason Martin Scorsese calls it one of his favorite horror films of all time. The film stars Oscar winner George C. Scott as John Russell, a composer struggling with his own family grief who gets caught up in a supernatural mystery involving his new home, where the ghost of a child seeks to bring the house’s dark hidden history to light.
Now 80 years old, “The Changeling” director Peter Medak has had an unorthodox career that in recent decades has found him moving into television, where his credits have included “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Hannibal.” However, in an interview to promote a newly issued Blu-ray release of “The Changeling,” Medak said he had no plans to return to television — he was surprisingly frank about the reason why.
“In Hollywood, there is terrible thing about age,” Medak said. “I shouldn’t really talk about it, but one has to because it’s the most idiotic thing. What they don’t realize is that the older you are as a film director, and I’ve been directing 50 years, the more you know. And it doesn’t mean that you are slower, because when I do TV, people can barely keep up with me.”
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If anything, Medak said, his advanced age should be an asset. “It’s a terrible misconception of the business in Hollywood,” he said. “In order to be able to make movies, you have to experience life. You have to know what life, regardless of whatever the script is about.”
In 1956, Medak fled to the U.K. from his native Hungary following the Hungarian Uprising, a student uprising that became a nationwide revolt against the country’s Marxist-Leninist government that was ultimately crushed by the Soviet Union. Once in the U.K., Medak embarked on a film career, learning from the bottom up until his first feature, “Negatives,” in 1968, starring Glenda Jackson.
Courtesy of Severin Films
But “The Changeling” is the one movie in his filmography with a legacy that has endured, inspiring plenty of horror directors, including Alejandro Amenábar, who used the film as inspiration for his 2001 haunted house classic “The Others,” starring Nicole Kidman. Although “The Others” is a critically acclaimed horror favorite — it even topped IndieWire’s ranking of the 20 Best Plot Twists of the 20th Century — Medak is not a fan.
“I was actually very upset when I saw that film,” Medak said. “It’s very difficult to make those stories and be completely original and different, because it has similar scenes. And fortunately, I’ve done my film earlier on, so it would have been more original than the other movies.”
Still, despite his reservations about “The Others,” Medak said he was honored that his film has inspired some of cinema’s greats, including Steven Spielberg. Medak said that Spielberg, who produced 1982’s haunted house classic “Poltergeist,” showed “The Changeling” during production to help set the tone of the horror hit.
“He screened ‘The Changeling’ several times for the whole crew,” Medak said. “And he said, ‘This is what it should be.’ It was a great compliment coming from him, and I know he even has his own 35mm copy of ‘The Changeling,’ and so does Martin Scorsese. It’s lovely to have that, to be on their lists of the greatest ghost stories of all times.”
Earlier this month, Medak’s classic was restored entirely in HD for the first time ever in America for a limited edition Blu-ray from Severin Films. Although the film opens with an unforgettable tragedy, Medak described one scene that won’t make it onto any special edition releases anytime: His original envisioning for the film’s opening shot, which was nixed by production.
“It was George C. Scott giving a lecture at the music academy in New York,” Medak said, “and then when he starts playing a classical piece and the camera starts beveling around the piano, and goes inside the piano through the chord and comes out on the other side as he plays. The camera travels around in a circle inside and outside the piano.”
Ultimately, the shot was scrapped. Instead, the audience is introduced to Scott’s John Russell by witnessing the horrific death of his wife and daughter, who are killed by a truck on an icy road, while Russell watches helplessly from a phone booth.
“It would’ve been in the first five minutes of the film,” Medak said. “But it was important to grab the audience right at the beginning with this tragic accident. I remember it was incredibly cold when we were shooting that sequence. I’m still freezing from it.”
“The Changeling” Limited Edition Blu-ray is now available from Severin Films.