Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s adaptation of Margaret Mahy’s Carnegie Medal-winning novel has all the right ingredients for success: a stellar cast which includes the likes of beloved actors Lucy Lawless and Timothy Spall; great New Zealand locations and excellent production design; and taught direction and editing. Together, all these elements come together quite well to tell the supernatural story of a young woman who journeys into the supernatural in a bid to save her young brother from the clutches of an evil spirit. However, the film is a bit of an odd duck in that it is neither fish nor fowl, audience-wise: perhaps too scary for the Goosebumps crowd but far too tame for the horror crowd.
Laura Chant (played with steadfast resolution by Erana James) and her brother Jacko live in a ramshackle house in a neighborhood ravaged by a recent disaster of some sort. Like Danny in The Shining, Laura has an extra Spidey-sense that warns of ill portents and bad things arising, which comes in handy since their overburdened, single mom (Heavenly Creatures’ Melanie Lynskey) leaves Laura to care for her brother for the lion’s share of the time.
“…not to fuck with a coven of witches — regardless if they reside in the decidedly ungothic surroundings of New Zealand…”
On the way back from school one day, the pair encounter Carmody Braque, an eccentric junk dealer (the always superb Timothy Spall, most widely known for his turn as Wormtail from the Harry Potter film series) selling his wares out of shipping container. Braque informs the pair that his items, some of ancient origin, were collected from across the globe. He offers to out an ink stamp of a butterfly on Jacko’s hand, but things immediately turn sinister when the stamp turns out to be the face of Braque himself. Upon returning home, try as she may, Laura cannot wash off the stamp, and her brother soon falls strangely ill. At the same time, Braque begins appearing at her doorstep and — in the mold of many necromancers — asks that he be invited in to check up on her and her brother.
Luckily, Laura has caught the eye of her uber hunky schoolmate, the Vespa-riding Sorensen Carlisle (model beautiful Nicholas Galitzine) who, as fate may have it, is the member of a local coven of witches that include his mom (Lucy Lawless, putting some star power between seasons of Ash Vs. Evil Dead) and grandma. After some by-the-book tarot card readings, the witches determine that Braque is actually a malevolent undead spirit who is literally siphoning the life from Jacko. If Laura is to get her slayer on, she must “crossover” — witch-speak for joining the coven; a dangerous ritual that will imbue her with the power to fight this evil and save her kid brother.
“…not enough to make one clutch the covers over one’s eyes or turn on all the lights in the house…”
To reveal any more would be to ruin the good fun of the flick that’s obviously a labor of love for all involved. If there’s any grand take away from the film, it’s probably not to fuck with a coven of witches — regardless if they reside in the decidedly ungothic surroundings of New Zealand. The biggest challenge that I see for the film is one of tone. There is a slight menace to be sure in Spall’s wicked performance but not enough to make one clutch the covers over one’s eyes or turn on all the lights in the house.
Similarly, the witches are a bit too pedestrian and upstanding to inspire much of…well..anything. They remind one more of the clientele you might encounter in the supplement section of your local co-op than the badasses in The Conjuring, Suspiria, or — hell — even The Craft. One wishes the filmmakers departed a bit from the source material and instead leaned into the evil a whole lot more by sacrificed an unwitting victim or two instead of stinkin’ up the joint with another votive candle or sage burning.
The Changeover (2019) Directed by Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie. Starring Erana James, Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, and Nicholas Galitzine.
6 out of 10 stars