In 1975, two thrillers were released within a couple months of each other that today present an interesting time capsule for the era’s views on gender roles and sexuality. One of them was a terrifying satire on the women’s liberation movement and the other was a horror movie rated R due not to its violent content, but instead its sexual content.
The Stepford Wives
Urban Dictionary defines “Stepford Wife” as a term “used to describe a servile, compliant, submissive, spineless wife who happily does her husband’s bidding and serves his every whim dutifully.” The 1975 movie, The Stepford Wives, based on Ira Levin’s novel, would probably add to that definition that these women also give their husbands the best sex of their lives, even (heaven forbid) in the middle of the afternoon.
The term is engrained in our society, usually with negative connotations. Nobody wants to be a Stepford Wife. We all want to believe we have free will and can experience our own thoughts and emotions. It’s a terrifying notion that someone could take that away from us. If you’ve never seen the original movie (and I pray you’ve never seen the awful remake), you may not really understand how effective it was, especially in the mid-70s, at bringing this term into our consciousness.
Where do the members of the “men’s association” come from and how did they coincidentally converge in Stepford? I mean, one of them used to work for Disney (whom I assume designed animatronics), one of them is a famous artist (whom I assume helps create the lifelike features of the robots) and one of them is conducting a speech study (which I know for a fact is a ruse for collecting the sound files for the robots, with the exception of the word “archaic,” it seems.)
Walter Eberhart (Peter Masterson) is merely a lawyer. But he moves his wife and two children from the hustle and bustle of New York City to a suburban community where “you don’t even have to lock your doors.” It doesn’t take long for him to join the Men’s Association and see the potential value of replacing his wife with a robot, particularly when she is so darned independent and opinionated. Just leave him alone and let him do his work, dammit!
And it doesn’t take his wife Joanna (Katherine Ross) very long to figure out something fishy is going on in Stepford. When an equally independent and opinionated woman moves to town with her husband, the two women find a common bond in trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) comes to the conclusion that there’s something in the water. She’s afraid Joanna won’t believe her theory, which is funny because it’s less fantastical than the truth.
(Spoiler alert.) What does it say about the cult of domesticity that things don’t end well for Joanna? Not only does it provide a downer of an ending, even though I love the dark sci-fi outcome, but it may also state that no matter how much women want the same opportunities as men, their place is really just in the home. You’d think Levin might be sexist, perhaps misogynistic, but that’s not the tone of The Stepford Wives. It doesn’t take itself that seriously.
But it is a seriously fun movie. I’ve already alluded that it’s terrifying and satirical, but it’s also a brilliant suspense thriller. When Joanna and Bobbie meet Charmaine, she’s a normal, tennis-playing housewife who agrees to help them establish a women’s equivalent to the men’s association. But a couple days later, the tennis court is being torn up to make room for her husband’s swimming pool and Charmaine is more concerned with cleaning and baking.
Joanna feels ultimate despair, though, when Bobbie is converted. More than anyone, Bobbie represents the humanity that’s lost when these women become robots. It’s a huge loss for a woman who feels trapped in her surroundings, and it’s a huge loss for an audience who loves this wacky woman. (Prentiss is wonderful as Bobbie. I became a huge fan of the actress after seeing The Stepford Wives.) Even the fate of Bobbie’s robot is heartbreaking in the context of the movie.
Besides the psychological terror described, the finale of The Stepford Wives is physically scary as Joanna goes to the men’s association (which happens to be an old, dark house) on a stormy night to retrieve her children, but instead meets her fate. Confronting the leader, she asks, “Why.” To which he replies, not in endless, moustache-twirling villain-speak, but with a simply statement that is infinitely more effective, “Because we can.”
Firmly planted in our pop culture landscape, The Stepford Wives spawned three TV movie sequels, Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children, and even a gender reversed version called The Stepford Husbands. None were nearly as enjoyable as the original. Nor was the 2004 remake. (Although at the time The Stepford Wives was ripe for an update, or even an all-out spoof, the remake succeeded in being neither.) Forget all of those, but don’t forget the original.
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud
It would be nice if I don’t have to say the same thing about the remake of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud that is currently in development, because although I’m fond of the original, it is a movie that I believe could stand an update with a few improvements. It was the rare horror movie in the 1970s that was rated R due to its sexual content. Things were different back then. You could not get into an R-rated movie without a parent or adult guardian if you were under age. But the only concern I’d have with a child seeing it is that he or she would probably find it too talky and boring.
The movie opens excitingly, though, with a vivid dream of a man’s murder in a lake. College professor Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin) wakes up in a cold sweat and his girlfriend, Nora (Cornelia Sharpe) says, “Jesus, I thought I was sleeping with another man.” Little does she know how right she is. Peter comes to believe that he is the reincarnation of the murdered man. Investigating the phenomenon at an occult bookstore, he asks for books on reincarnation. The clerk points him towards Edgar Cayce and says, “Everyone’s into it these days.”
The entire movie is about Peter discovering “who he is.” Spotting a familiar town on the local news, he travels to Massachusetts to find it. Once there, as more memories return, the dreams go away (except for the one pestering murder in the lake dream). He ultimately learns he is the reincarnation of Jeffrey Curtis, a philandering husband to the daughter of a rich banker. It was his wife, Marcia (Margot Kidder) who beaned him on the head with an oar in the lake nearly 30 years ago.
Curtis apparently had a three-month old daughter at the time. When he meets the grown woman, Ann (Jennifer O’Neill), he falls in love with her. Here is where the primary conflict of the movie arises. If yo think about it, as Peter becomes more in touch with his previous self, he’d actually be sleeping with his own daughter. The movie doesn’t shy away from that awkwardness. He acknowledges it. Sam (Paul Hecht), the parapsychologist who’s been helping him acknowledges it.
I like the way The Reincarnation of Peter Proud handles this. First, Peter is repulsed by kissing her; he knows it could be considered incestuous. Then, Sam reminds him how inappropriate it is. But the relationship is really just part of the process of Peter discovering himself. Although he is the reincarnation of Jeffrey Curtis, that isn’t who he is now. I think falling in love with Ann is what helps him eventually accept what is happening to him and reconcile the inner turmoil.
(Spoiler alert.) Not that Peter is going to be around very much longer to have to reconcile anything. Marica is alive and well, albeit an alcoholic. Peter’s mannerisms and outbursts convince her that Jeffrey has come back to torment her. Remember, she did kill him once. I wonder if the ending of the movie, besides being a real downer, is making a statement that Peter’s relationship with Ann was wrong after all. I’m certain the filmmakers wanted to take that stance, lest they be accused of saying incest is OK.
There’s one aspect I think could have elevated The Reincarnation of Peter Proud from a good movie to a great one. It’s the dreams themselves. Early in the movie, it’s discovered through a sleep study that Peter isn’t dreaming at all. In fact, without the release that dreaming provides on a regular basis, he could begin to have serious psychological issues. But this concept is not fully explored. I think it could have been more of a reason to motivate Peter. Instead, it’s just kind of a throwaway idea.
What about the sex? As you can imagine, it’s very tame by today’s standards. It is, however, very matter of fact. Peter and Nora talk about it openly; apparently he’s a tiger in the sack. The repeated scenes of the build-up to Jeffrey Curtis’s murder include nudity, both male and female. When it finally happens between Peter and Ann, it’s actually the most tasteful scene in the movie. What about Margot masturbating in the bathtub? The scene actually goes a long way toward explaining her motivations and is not salacious or titillating in any way.
In 2014, I still think reincarnation is a fascinating subject. Have we lived other lives? Is our purpose on Earth to finally achieve some type of enlightenment so that we may ultimately pass to another consciousness? Whether or not you believe in an afterlife, it’s a more comforting thought than believing we simply cease to exist. With the remake of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud on it’s way, it would be a perfect time to watch the original and contemplate these questions yourself.
For more on these movies, visit It Came from Beneath My Mind and the Countdown to Halloween 2014.