Friday 1 March 2024

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

The Mephisto Waltz is a 1971 gothic horror movie with a contemporary setting. I avoided this movie for years because of my allergic reaction to Alan Alda but I have to admit he does OK in this film.

Alda plays Myles Clarkson. Myles is a music journalist with a beautiful wife (Paula, played by Jacqueline Bisset) and a daughter. My most people’s standards he’s a success but he really wanted to be a concert pianist. He studied for years but never made the grade and as a result he’s always felt himself to be a bit of a failure.

He interviews Duncan Ely (Curd Jürgens), the world’s greatest living pianist. Duncan is struck by Myles’ hands. They are hands that any concert pianist would kill to possess.

Duncan and his daughter Roxanne Delancey (Barbara Parkins) become very friendly with the Clarksons. Myles is flattered. Myles is really an overgrown adolescent blinded by his hero-worship of Duncan. Paula, who is a whole lot smarter than her husband, is puzzled and suspicious.

Paula is very suspicious indeed of Roxanne. Her suspicions intensify when she sees Duncan kissing Roxanne at a party. It is not exactly a fatherly peck on the cheek. It’s a long passionate kiss. Paula has also noticed that Roxanne’s interest in Myles seems to have definite carnal overtones.

Paula also comes to suspect Roxanne of having odd interests in the occult.

Duncan Ely is an old man in poor health. His career as a concert pianist is all but over and he may not have long to live.

It won’t come as a great surprise that Duncan and Roxanne have hatched a plot. Their plan will necessitate making a demonic bargain but they’re OK with that. As Roxanne’s ex-husband puts it, they’re spoilt rich people who use the occult as an excuse for doing whatever they want to do without any regard for morality. What Duncan wants is to keep living, with a young body, preferably a young body with the kinds of hands a concert pianist needs. What Roxanne wants is to keep Daddy alive, bask in his reflected glory. She also has reasons to want Daddy to have a healthy young body, and not just so he can play the piano.

It’s a movie that is very much a part of the late 60s/70s wave of Hollywood movies dealing with Satanism and there’s an obvious Rosemary’s Baby influence.

There’s nothing remotely original here but in a horror movie the execution matters more than the originality of the concept. The execution here is certainly spirited. Director Paul Wendkos goes to town with spooky trippy visual effects and over-the-top dream sequences. The spooky creepy stuff is done in shamelessly excessive style. It’s all rather schlocky and totally lacking in subtlety but it’s fun.

You could say the same thing about Alan Alda’s performance. There’s zero nuance to it and he overacts outrageously but his performance works in the context of the movie’s overall style.

Jacqueline Bisset makes a bit more of an effort to do some real acting, with some success, and she looks stunning. Barbara Parkins as Roxanne oozes wicked depraved evilness.

This is a movie about Satanism but it’s not about world domination or the triumph of evil or the lust for power. It’s all about sexual desire, and not always healthy sexual desire. Paula is entirely obsessed sexually with Myles. Roxanne is sexually obsessed with Duncan. Duncan is obsessed with Paula. It’s a movie dripping with the decadence and depravity of the rich and fashionable.

Visually it’s very gimmicky in a very 70s way but that’s a large part of its charm. It also has a very TV movie feel, or rather the feel of a TV movie trying to look cinematic but not quite making it.

Whether you like the movie or not depends on your expectations. If you’re hoping for full-on horror you’ll be disappointed. If you’re hoping for something ground-breaking like Rosemary’s Baby you’ll be disappointed. It’s a movie with lesser ambitions which it doesn’t always achieve.

That’s not to say it’s a so-bad-it’s-good movie. That would be an unnecessarily harsh judgment. It’s competently made. The acting isn’t great but it’s right for the movie. It does have some spooky moments, and a few mild scares. The ending works pretty well. It does create an effectively decadent atmosphere - these are people using dark forces purely to enhance their own sensual pleasures. It has its flaws but it’s consistently entertaining and watchable.

Paul Wendkos made a few feature films (including the charming Gidget in 1959) but worked mostly in television, directing an astonishing number of TV movies including the rather good Fear No Evil (1969).

With all its flaws this movie is thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.

1 comment:

tom j jones said...

I've heard of this, but never seen it. It sounds like it might be right up my street