Earlier this week, we learned that a remake of 1980's The Changeling is currently in development from the original film's producer, Joel B. Michaels. However, the movie's screenwriter, Tab Murphy (scribe of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame and Atlantis: The Lost Empire), prefers the terms "reimagining."
"I don’t think this is a shot-for-shot remake," Murphy tells SYFY WIRE, recounting his initial pitch to Michaels. "I think you’d call it a reimagining, and I think you’d have to bring something new to the table in terms of story and plot that separates it a little bit from the original."
Ironically, Murphy had already worked with Michaels on his directorial debut, Last of the Dogmen, back in 1994. Wanting to honor the film's 25th anniversary with a Blu-ray release, the screenwriter searched high and low for the person who held the home video rights. After his hunt proved fruitless, he was ready to give up when his girlfriend learned that the rights to Dogmen had reverted back to Michaels. Murphy and the veteran producer met up for a lunch, where the latter mentioned he'd been trying to remake The Changeling for a decade, but couldn't find the right script.
"What Joel didn’t realize is that I grew up loving horror movies," Murphy explains. "And it’s so bizarre to me that I’m 40 years into my career and I’ve never written a horror film or a scary movie or a ghost story or whatever. I started to talk about the original, I started to talk about what I thought it needed in order to contemporize it and bring it to a whole new generation of fans."
The lunch ended with Murphy promising to write a three-page outline. Instead, he came back with 33 pages and got the job to write the script, which began to take shape last September.
"I kept the initial idea of the original movie, and then I just added another layer of an additional bigger idea onto that," he says. "That [idea] made it the same, but in a fresh and bigger way, [with] bigger stakes."
Written by William Gray and Diana Maddox, the first Changeling (based on a story by Russell Hunter) was directed by Peter Medak (The Babysitter). It starred George C. Scott (Patton) as John Russell, an accomplished composer who moves into a haunted, Seattle-based mansion after his wife and daughter are killed in a car accident. For the reimagining, the producers wanted to move the plot to Venice, Italy, but Murphy convinced them to settle on Ireland.
"They wanted it to have a Don’t Look Now vibe because of the canals and the creepiness of that film. But I convinced them to go with Ireland," he adds. "Because the Irish countryside and the old house, the manor, and all that stuff just felt like it would play better in Ireland ... Once they were on board with that, I did a lot of research and tried to find something I could bring to the table that was fresh and new to the story. And I did. I found something that was remarkable and true, and it just worked really well in terms of complementing the original story."
Similar to its 1980 predecessor, the reimagining will center on a musician who returns to his childhood home in Ireland following the tragic death of his daughter. Not long after settling in, the character experiences some terrifying events, eventually getting swept up in the mystery of a dead child (and terrible family secret) that haunts the domicile.
"[Joel and I] were right on the same page, we wanted to do something classy, actor-driven, character-driven, and an emotional roller coaster of the lead character as he discovers things aren’t what they seem," Murphy says. "[Joel] wanted to make an elegant horror movie. In fact, he said, ‘Look, I don’t even think of this as a horror movie, I want to make an elegant, suspenseful, supernatural thriller. I want it to be smart and elevated and not rely on cheap scares and jump scares and s*** like that.’"
Murphy (a collector of Famous Monsters of Filmland in his youth and a longtime fan of classics like The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Universal's iconic creature features) believes that we've become desensitized to violence and gore in modern horror. He cites the genre's tired tropes and cliches for why he's never tackled it in his career until now. With The Changeling, he wants to demonstrate how scares can complement a story, not consume it entirely.
"I said, ‘Joel, you know my intention with this is that if you were to strip all of the horror and scary elements out of the story, it would still be a compelling thriller-mystery,'" he recalls. "If you can do that, that’s what elevates horror to movies that become memorable beyond the scares, because you care about the characters and you’re invested in whatever they’re going through and whatever they’re trying to solve ... The best horror movies are the ones that leave the most graphic parts or scary parts to your imagination, that lead you up to the abyss and then let you jump off with your imagination into whatever terrors are lurking at the bottom."
Murphy does assure us that there will be a jump scare or two in the film, but goes on to say that "you’re judicious with how you use certain things. You gotta just use one like Spielberg used in Jaws when Dreyfuss was underwater and he looked in that hole and the eyeless head suddenly floated into frame."
The ultimate goal, though, was to make sure that the film could "stand on its own," while still paying tribute to what came before. If all goes according to plan, The Changeling's fresh incarnation will attract old-school fans, as well as new ones who are inspired to "go back and watch the original."
"Certainly, there would be things that are from the original, but I didn’t want this project to be perceived as an attempt to cash in on an idea," the writer continues. "We really wanted to do something that ... would bring something new to the table, would have a few twists, would be scary as hell. So that people who were fans of the original would be able to say, ‘Yeah, OK, I see what they did here. I revere and love the original, but there’s room for this movie, too.’ And then those that hadn’t seen the original would have a roller coaster of a good time."
Anders Engström (known for helming episodes of Hanna, See, and Taboo) has been tapped as director for the project. Murphy was particularly blown away by the filmmaker's work on a "police detective series" from Europe (presumably 2015's Jordskott).
"You know how you can just know sometimes that somebody is in command visually and aesthetically and the acting is good? I watched two minutes of that and I was like, ‘F***, this guy’s great," Murphy says, adding that he "had many conversations with Anders, and he was terrifically supportive."
The screenwriter continues: "He had good ideas, but he was very respectful of the script that we had already developed. When he talked about the script and certain moments, he talked about those moments that, in my head, I thought, ‘These moments could be great in the hands of the right director.’ It was very encouraging ... and the thing of it is, like he said, I’m not making a horror movie. I’m making a terrific supernatural thriller, but it’s all about the performances and the acting and the actors we get.' Visually, I have no doubt this guy is gonna nail it."
The production is hoping to lock down a leading actor by the middle of next week.