The Stepford Wives (1975) Review

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

The Stepford Wives (1975) Review

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on October 10th, 2018 | Movie Review | Cult, Drama, Psychological, Suburb

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It’s about a family moving to an American east coast suburb that hides dark domestic secrets.

The Stepford Wives was directed by Bryan Forbes and stars Katharine Ross (from The Legacy), Paula Prentiss (from Saturday the 14th) and Nanette Newman.

Something strange is happening in the town of Stepford.

The Stepford Wives Review

Meet Ira Levin:

There is so much baggage to unpack for this movie, we barely can fit a review in here. The Stepford Wives is based on the novel by Ira Levin, who also wrote the novels behind Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil, and several other novels that count as classics of their genres. Feel a sneeze coming on, ahhhhhh -

"Adapt This Perfect Day into a movie right now!!!"

- choo. Ira Levin only produced six novels in his life, some seven years apart each, and not very long ones at that. Yet each of them were hailed as masterpieces; Stephen King called him “...the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel...” because not a word escaped Levin unless it was tuned like the finest quartz crystal. Modern viewers need to be aware that Levin was, at his heart, a satirist. He worked with whatever was in the newspaper headlines, and then he responded to it with a big, blown-out-of-proportion treatment of it.

Now Choke Down This Feminist Message If I Have To Pound It Down Your Throat!

The Present Author catches a veritable truckload of crap for pointing out that movies like this one have a feminist message. To which I invariably order the delivery of an even BIGGER truckload of crap upon my noble head by doubling down to “ALL horror movies have a social, political, or philosophical message.”

I have no idea why that’s such a controversial thing to point out. Look, if I have to scare you, then I have to take a fear that’s already in your head and bring it to life. You’re scared of the dark, I tell you there’s a monster in it. You’re scared of germs, zombie virus outbreak. You’re scared of technology, robots conquer Earth. Scared that media is turning us into meat with eyes, Videodrome. Over and over, first comes the news, then comes the fear reaction to that news, then comes a series of horror movies about that fear.

This is why all the movies about mutated monsters from nuclear fallout came out circa the 1950s and not, say, the 1930s or now.

But often times the fear is more complex, and so horror movies use subtexts instead of a direct representation. Every zombie apocalypse has, at its heart, political division; the shambling mindless hordes are the other party. Xenophobia is the fear of the unknown stranger, so invasions from space and the like qualify. Vampires, in case you haven’t noticed, are inherently sexual in nature, so anxiety over sex covers that. See your local English professor for more examples. Even the idea that “killing people is wrong” is a philosophical statement from a value system, so yes, Jason, Michael, Freddy, Leatherface, welcome to the periodical table of horror soapbox elements. Doesn’t matter if you agree with it or not, it’s still there.

The Stepford Wives came out shortly after “women’s lib”, and the resulting backlash against it which became known as “the battle of the sexes”. And I hope you’re sitting down for this, but that battle is far from decided in western culture even today. Perhaps you’ve heard lately of the incel movement, or the #MeToo movement. Pick your favorite current celebrity in the doghouse for sexual assaults or offenses, whether or not they eat Jello.

Doesn’t matter which side of the issue you adapt, it’s still an issue, and part of the business of horror is to hold a funhouse mirror up to that issue. Sure, you can still sit back and enjoy a good scary movie for being a good scary movie. This is just a glimpse inside the mechanics.

Oh, There’s A Movie Review In Here?

Right, so The Stepford Wives is about Walter (Peter Masterson) and Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) who move with their kids to the sunny, tranquil suburbs of Stepford, Connecticut. Joanna is a feminist and has her own photography career, but finds few peers in town to talk to because they all sound like they stepped out of a dish-washing liquid commercial. Meanwhile there’s the Men's Association, which, duh, doesn’t allow women, and all the men join.

Joanna finds a friend who isn’t like the others and more like herself, tennis-playing Charmaine Wimperis (Tina Louise). A new family moves in and Joanna also befriends Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss). Together this posse tries to strike up a women’s organization, but falls flat. What’s worse, Charmaine goes off for a weekend trip and comes back changed, now selflessly as devoted to being a housewife who talks of nothing but cleaning as the rest of the Stepford women. What the devil is going on here? Bobbie and Joanna investigate. Why do the native Stepford women act so strange, and why do the new ones “convert” after a few months? Why is a guy from the Men’s Association coming around getting samples of Joanna’s image and voice? The answers will shock you!

All this is done with the creepiest performances, which border on both comedy and horror. Stepford wives all dress alike in lavish gowns and spend all their free time pushing shopping carts. One goes off her trolley and goes around a garden party repeating “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe” until she gets hustled inside. Things get more and more paranoid as a conspiracy is being uncovered. You can giggle along with the movie’s satirical premise or look at the newspaper headlines behind it and shudder.

And How’s That Play Today?

The thing is, satire is about ridicule. Ira Levin was actually pointing out how absurd was the position of BOTH extremes in the battle of the sexes. That means not only is it ridiculous to expect that all women kowtow to become passive baby factories that never leave the kitchen, but it’s also ridiculous to say that all men want a soulless dishwasher. It’s also ridiculous to say that every woman who really is fulfilled with being a stay-at-home mom must of necessity not be fully human. It’s ridiculous to say that any man who wants to be the head of his household is a vile female oppressor. Pick a Tumblr opinion or a Reddit opinion, they’re all wrong!

Bottom line, ladies and gentlemen, regardless of whether you’re mad at this movie or think it’s the ultimate truth, you’re taking it at face value. Nevertheless, the fact that it inspires such outraged opinions on both sides of the issue makes it all the more of a timeless masterpiece, albeit not exactly a great horror movie though it has its slow-burn charms if you’re patient. It’s tough to judge this as just a horror movie, when it’s really a sociology tract with a plot laid over it.

The Stepford Wives has contemporaries in movies like Get Out with the racial divide (Jordan Peele called this movie one of his favorites), Society with the class divide, and plain old Invasion of the Body Snatchers for any generic divide. The Stepford Wives comes off as badly dated now, because the lines drawn then have been replaced by different ones now. The Brady Bunch station wagons and Carter-era cultural references don’t help.

Hey, don’t look now, but Rosemary’s Baby also had things to say about feminism. Or does a gang of people forcing a woman to experience a pregnancy for their own reasons instead of hers not make that obvious enough?

Me, if I had a chance to see The Stepford Wives (1975) in a theater right now, I’d bring a stool so I could sit with my back to the screen watching the audience, because that’s where the real horror show - and the comedy - is.

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