Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Following recent discussions on related subjects I just had to see The Stepford Wives. The 1975 version of course, not the remake. It’s an unconventional horror movie that doesn’t seem quite sure if it is a horror movie, but if you stick with it it works surprisingly well.

Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross), her husband Walter and their two kids have had enough of the sleaze and crime of Manhattan and so they’ve relocated to the peace and quiet of the town of Stepford in Connecticut. Stepford looks kind of like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Joanna actually preferred the sleaze and crime of New York, and she fears death by boredom in Stepford. This place is so 1950s. But when she meets another exile from the big city, the wildly eccentric Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), she decides life in Stepford might be just about bearable. And at least one of the other women, Charmaine, seems OK. She’s also fairly new to Stepford.

Initially Stepford seems to be exactly what it appears to be on the surface - boring, backward and provincial but safe. Thee are a couple of little things that Joanna finds to be just a bit creepy though. Like the Stepford Men’s Association (from which women are strictly excluded). As time goes on she and Bobbie notice other slightly strange things. They didn’t expect the locals to be like New Yorkers, but the women of Stepford are rather worrying. They’re not interested in anything except housework and baking and cleaning products, and looking nice for their husbands. And the way they dress is bizarre. Not just hyper-feminine, but in a way they seems excessively old-fashioned even for a sleepy village like Stepford. All those frills!

Joanna’s first encounter with the men of the Stepford Men’s Association leaves her rather bewildered. Why does her husband want to hang around with bores like these guys? Especially the one who runs it, some kind of computer expert who used to work at Disneyland. Most of the men in Stepford apparently work in similar fields. And her first Stepford party is a bit weird, with the very mousy Mrs van Sant wandering about repeating the same phrase over and over again.

Things become really worrying when she and Bobbie arrive at Charmaine’s house just as Charmaine’s tennis court is being bulldozed. She adores tennis, but now Charmaine assures them that she realises how selfish she’d been, and how much happier she’s going to be now that she’s decided to devote herself to the housework and to being a better wife. And Charmaine is not the only new arrival in Stepford who becomes a sudden and wholly unexpected convert to the joys of 50s-style domesticity. And perhaps Joanna is imagining it, but did these women have such large breasts before they embraced the idea of becoming career housewives? What exactly is going on with the women of Stepford?

Those expecting a standard horror movie may find the pacing of this one to be excessively slow, but it serves a dramatic purpose. We need to see events as Joanna sees them. The realisation that something sinister is going on has to sneak up on us gradually. And like Joanna we have to keep on assuming that really it’s just a matter of adjustment to a different lifestyle - the explanation can’t possibly be anything really strange, like the sort of thing you’d see in a horror movie.

The lively and engaging performances of Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss keep things entertaining and ensure that despite the leisurely pacing things never become dull. I was more surprised by Katharine Ross, an actress I've always regarded with indifference - she’s extremely good. And there’s a sly but subtle humour at work as well. This is as much social satire as horror, and it’s done pretty well.

The twist ending is handled well, and although we have to wait a long time for any overt horror when it does come director Bryan Forbes delivers the goods. And the final scene is very effectively creepy. Forbes says he was attracted by the project because it offered the opportunity to do a horror thriller without having to resort to clichés like shooting everything in shadow. The entire movie is bathed in sunshine and light, which suits the combination of satire and slowly building weirdness extremely well.

Based on a novel by Ira Levin (author of Rosemary's Baby), the screenplay is credited to William Goldman. In fact director Bryan Forbes rewrote Goldman’s script so extensively that Goldman apparently hasn’t spoken to him since! Ira Levin on the other hand was very impressed by Forbes’s interpretation of his novel. Curiously enough the movie was savagely criticised upon release by some feminist groups, although it’s probably the single most pro-feminist American movie of the 70s.

Columbia’s Region 4 DVD release is a little disappointing. The picture is quite grainy. It does include a brief featurette though, so I suppose we should be grateful since actual extras on Region 4 DVDs are pretty rare.

A story that could have been laboured is done with a pleasing degree of subtlety. The Stepford Wives is highly recommended.

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