Directed by Bryan Forbes
Written by William Goldman from a novel by Ira Levin
Starring Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, & Tina Louise
I love horror films as social commentary. Horror is such a great genre to explore some of the juiciest issues and because it’s horror, it can do so in the goriest, grittiest, and sometimes the most real and terrifying manner possible. In 1975 the Feminist movement was well underway. The image of June Cleaver in the kitchen cooking and cleaning may be something to be scoffed at by modern woman, but in 1975, it was still an image folks found all too familiar. Change takes time and some folks fight it tooth and nail. That’s what THE STEPFORD WIVES is all about.
THE STEPFORD WIVES, like ROSEMARY’S BABY (which was written by the same author), is a horror story where the true terror lies in the power of paranoia. And like ROSEMARY’S BABY (which is one of my favorite horror films of all time), it is an effective horror film reflecting its time, not because of the copious amounts of blood and guts spilled, not because of the torture or maiming depicted, not because of elaborate CGI or make-up effects. There’s none of that in this film. THE STEPFORD WIVES is scary as hell because it deals with a real issue (man’s difficulty with a woman’s rise of power) in a manner that isn’t too far from the norm (a secret men’s club conspire to turn their liberated wives into subservient house fraus). Sure robot wives sounds kooky, but director Bryan Forbes plays the sci fi on the low here and instead focuses on making this into a bleak descent into madness. But really, in this day and age when a love doll can be purchased for a couple of hundred dollars (not that I would know, of course…ahem…), it doesn’t sound like a plot that is all too “out there.” Like ROSEMARY’S BABY, Ross’ character finds the world around her shrinking as those against her start stacking up. Even the shrink she goes to is somewhat cold and dismissive (there’s a part of me that thought for a while that the shrink was in on the conspiracy as well and that she was actually a HE in drag, but the movie never goes there). THE STEPFORD WIVES is one of those films that makes you look over your shoulder thinking that those feelings one often gets that the world is out to get them may, in fact, be more on the money than one would hope.
THE STEPFORD WIVES is acted perfectly with standout performances by Ross and Paula Prentiss. And yes, that is Tina (Ginger from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND) Louise as a sassy gold-digger who gets converted into a robot early on in the film. The men here are portrayed as lecherous and evil. Ross’ husband Walter isn’t even in her league; in fact, none of the men in this film’s wives match up, and that’s the point. The President of the Men’s Club, Dale Coba, (played by Patrick O’Neal, who later in his career pops up in THE STUFF and UNDER SEIGE) even says in his villainous monologue at the end, “They’re perfect. They will love us even after our skin gets saggy and we grow old.” Eww. Pretty creepy stuff. Director Forbes fills the film with creepy lines like this reflecting the horrors of subservience and chauvinism.
So what does THE STEPFORD WIVES say? Well, I won’t ruin the ending, but it is a horror film, so you can guess it doesn’t turn out well. I will say that our liberated damsel puts up a good fight to not become a brain dead love toy for her middle aged businessman husband. The horror here is at an extreme but the reason why this is a powerful film is that it is something everyone can relate to. No one wants to be a mindless slave. Everyone at one point or another has felt that way though—helpless, worthless, as if your opinion doesn’t count. And THE STEPFORD WIVES plays on those feelings masterfully. Films like this are great because they inspire debate and take stands on issues that affect you and me. Sure it’s freaky when one of the wives gets hit on the head and she starts repeating herself like a stuck record, but the real terror lies in the cards being stacked against one woman standing up for herself. This is cerebral and political horror,and there’s not enough of it out there. With the inundation of brainless horror in theaters these days, it’s nice to know that you can return to some classics to show that just because it’s horror doesn’t mean it has to be dumbed down. THE STEPFORD WIVES is the perfect example of brains and brawn when it comes to scares.