“It’s an old house. It makes noises.”
As a general rule, I find that attempting to select the “best” from any array of things that are pretty much infinitely varied is a mug’s game. But if you put a gun to my head and order me to tell you the single best scene in the history of horror cinema, I’m going to tell you it’s that ball rolling down the stairs in Peter Medak’s The Changeling.
This isn’t a controversial pick. The ball on the stairs is a recognized classic moment, though I dare say that there are probably a lot of folks who don’t have a handle on why it works so well, as evidenced by the number of movies that borrow the image without replicating the elements that make it kick.
In short, the scene with the ball works because it conveys so much with such a simple image. It works not because a ball bouncing down the stairs of its own volition is inherently creepy, but because of the massive weight of what the ball represents by that point. Not merely the ties to our protagonist’s tragic past, but the fact that he has just driven far away and thrown the ball into the river. It shows how far the ghostly force in the house can reach, how powerful the grudge it bears has become, and how inescapable all of this truly is.
This is not an article about the ball scene from The Changeling, though. Instead, we’re here to talk about the new 4K release from Second Sight. I bring up the ball scene only to establish my bonafides when discussing this flick, which is one of my favorite ghost movies of the modern era. Which is to say, this was not a first-time watch for me. I first tracked The Changeling down on DVD several years ago, and I’ve since bought the Severin Blu-ray that was released more recently. So, for once, I have much to compare the new Second Sight 4K to.
And, especially in the movie’s tragic opening moments, there is reason to wonder if this new release is an upgrade over previous versions. The film grain is so apparent early on, especially in the many shots of overcast sky, that it calls to mind the famous opening line from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, about the sky being the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.
Once those early outdoor shots are past, though, the picture looks almost uncannily clear and sharp for much of the rest of the running time. There were moments, in fact, when the clarity actually threatened to pull me out of the experience, as much as the grain nearly had earlier. Moments when the film’s iconic Cheesman House and its environs (sadly, a set built for the picture and not a place we can actually visit) look so startlingly real that you feel as if you could touch the screen and feel their texture.
Sound is every bit as important to the experience of watching The Changeling as image – maybe more so – and I’m happy to report that the soundscape here is as rich and haunting as ever. The Second Sight 4K also comes with all the bells and whistles you might imagine, including a slipcase with new art by Christopher Shy, a 108-page booklet, original soundtrack CD, and more, not to mention a variety of on-disc special features, including commentary tracks, a featurette on the real story that inspired the film, and plenty of others.
The Changeling is one of those movies that doesn’t so much have fans as it does adherents. If you’re not one of those, I can’t really say whether the new 4K release is worth replacing a previous release, especially something like the (quite nice) Severin Blu. And if you are, chances are your mind is already made up. I can say that Second Sight has packed this release with plenty of reasons to justify the price tag.
And for those who haven’t ever seen The Changeling, it is a genuine classic, positioned perhaps just below such luminaries of the field as The Haunting or Rosemary’s Baby or what-have-you. The plot follows a composer who has recently lost his wife and young daughter in an accident as he moves into a historic house and falls into the ghostly mystery at the heart of it. The Changeling is an ideal of example of what we typically think of as horror for grown-ups – sedately paced and occupied with undercurrents of grief and melancholy, anchored by a performance from an aging George C. Scott, one of those men who seems to have never been young.
It is, in many ways, the most familiar of all possible ghost stories, and despite some interesting stuff about the halls of power and how people arrive in them – and stay in them – it does little that could be considered particularly surprising. There’s the usual stuff of a gradually accelerating haunting, bangings in the night, a séance, and a crime that must be redressed. It’s just that all of it is handled so confidently that it is impossible to find fault in its familiarity.
Perhaps this is why the resonances of The Changeling can be felt in just about every ghost movie that has come since, especially in The Ring, with its drowned ghost in the well and its deathless grudge that extends so far beyond the original crime. Familiar The Changeling may be, but familiarity needn’t breed contempt, and for my money, this may be one of the very best examples of a cinematic ghost story ever made. Nothing too wild. Just an old-fashioned ghost story told exceptionally well. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.