Warning: This particular essay on The Mephisto Waltz is loaded with spoilers. If you haven’t yet seen the film and wish to discover its surprises for yourself, stop reading now and come back later. I’ll still be here.
One of the more effective, least exploitative entries in the post-Rosemary’s Baby occult sweepstakes (before The Exorcist came along and switched up the game-plan, entirely), is 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz. Adapted from the 1969 novel by Fred Mustard Stewart— which was itself a rather loud echoing of Ira Levin’s1967 novel— The Mephisto Waltz is a Satanic thriller that succeeds at being enjoyably stylish, suspenseful, and marvelously kinky while never actually giving Roman Polanski’s now-iconic film any serious competition.
|Jacqueline Bisset as Paula Clarkson|
|Alan Alda as Myles Clarkson|
|Barbara Parkins as Roxanne Delancey|
|Curd Jurgens as Duncan Ely|
|Bradford Dillman as Bill Delancy|
And for the record, Duncan, when not discovering new talent or wowing audiences with impassioned performances of Franz Liszt’s The Mephisto Waltz (“They don’t understand that after a concert, there’s blood on the piano keys!”), finds time to be a practicing Satanist.
|While studying those concert pianist fingers, Miles fails to note how short his life-line suddenly got|
Having already learned from Rosemary’s Baby just how pushy devil-worshippers can be, it comes as no surprise when Duncan and his witchily feline daughter, Roxanne (Parkins), begin aggressively insinuating themselves into the lives of Myles, his beautiful, no- nonsense wife, Paula (Bisset), and their conveniently-disappearing daughter, Abby (Pamelyn Ferdin). Faster than you can say “tannis root,” we learn that Duncan, who is dying of leukemia, has plans to serve Myles’ soul with an eviction notice and take up residence in the lean yet alarmingly flabby body ASAP…with a little help from the devil, of course.
Will the ever-suspicious Paula, distrustful and jealous of the fawning attentions of Duncan and Roxanne from the start, unearth the dark secret behind this creepily close-knit father/ daughter duo? Or will her pugnacious, Nancy Drew-curiosity and fortitude (“…Well, I’m just one grade too tough!”) only serve to place her and her family in greater danger?
The answers to this and many more suitable-for-a-Black-Sabbath questions are answered in The Mephisto Waltz …a Quinn Martin production. No, really, it is. The sole foray into feature film production by the man who gave us The Fugitive, The F.B.I., Barnaby Jones, The Streets of San Francisco, etc. However, to my great disappointment, The Mephisto Waltz is lacking in those two great QM Production trademarks: the authoritarian narrator and the title card breakdown of the story into separate acts and an epilogue.
|This strikingly bizarre publicity photo showing Barbara Parkins in the company of a dog wearing a human mask was used extensively in promoting The Mephisto Waltz in 1971|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As I’ve stated in a previous post, I consider Rosemary’s Baby to be one of the smartest, most effectively chilling films ever made. It’s flawless both as a horror film and a psychological thriller. It’s not just Roman Polanski’s cleverly black-humored approach to the material and the finely-observed performances he elicits from his cast; but Ira Levin’s story itself is a masterfully structured bit of Modern Gothic. A superior example of contemporary horror.
When The Mephisto Waltz opened in theaters, the promotional buzz was all about its similarities to Rosemary’s Baby...just as scary only sexier. I was all hopped up to see it, but, being only 14 at the time, my mother (whose attentions were well-intentioned, if inconsistent) wouldn’t let me see the R-rated feature. I had to satisfy my curiosity with a paperback copy of the novel from the local library. I was delighted to find it a genuinely suspenseful page-turner with an endangered, resourceful heroine at its center. Just the the sort Ira Levin specialized in.
Bisset and co-star bare their fangs
Jump ahead to the 1980s and adulthood, and I finally get to see The Mephisto Waltz at a revival theater on a double-bill with its spiritual cousin, Rosemary’s Baby. I wasn't disappointed. It’s no Rosemary’s Baby by a longshot, but what it is is a nicely crafted thriller that attempts to earn its chills honestly: through atmosphere, character and suspense. If the contrivances of plot seem somewhat rushed and the performances and direction only occasionally above standard, 70s-era, movie of the week TV, The Mephisto Waltz distinguishes itself from the usual occult fare by force of sheer style. The ante is raised in the kinky sexuality and overall amorality of its theme and lead characters.
|The entire premise of The Mephisto Waltz asks that we accept that these two breathtaking beauties would be willing to fight, commit murder, and bargain their souls to the devil for...|
When it comes to movie stars, sometimes (too often, in fact) I find myself guilty of the kind of superficiality I thoroughly abhor in others: I cut the beautiful a great deal of slack. Jacqueline Bisset is so stunning that I think I’m not as objective about her acting ability as I might be. Frequently saddled with ornamental roles, The Mephisto Waltz offers Bisset a sizable lead part requiring a broad range of emotions. How does she fare? With her clipped British diction and somewhat remote demeanor, she handles the scenes requiring scorn, sarcasm, and assertiveness pretty well. She’s less effective with scenes where she has to convey her character’s vulnerability and fragile emotional state.
OK, call me superficial, but Jacqueline Bisset is absolutely GORGEOUS in this movie and I think I would be would be happy just watching her defrosting a freezer.
|Jacqueline Bisset goes to Hades|
Apparently, converting to Satanism requires considerably less formal instruction that converting to Christianity or Judaism
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s lovely Barbara Parkins (looking like a million bucks) cast in the kind of bad girl role her steely eyes and honeyed voice always hinted at (she would have made a sensational Catwoman). She’s terrific and her bitch-fest scenes with Bisset always seem on the verge of a cat-fight that never materializes (I can dream, can't I?).
Sticking out like a sore thumb amongst all this portentous pulchritude is ol’ “Hawkeye” himself, Alan Alda; looking for all the world like a film-school intern who’d wandered accidentally in front of the camera. Alda has always seemed like a very nice guy to me, so I won’t go on about how badly miscast he is (Bisset’s then-boyfriend, Michael Sarrazin, would have been great in the role...or perhaps, Keir Dullea who was also very easy on the eyes), just suffice it to say that a huge chunk of plot credibility flies out the door every time he appears.
|Alan Alda Michael Sarrazin|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I think one of the reasons I've never seen a film about the occult to ever come close to capturing Rosemary’s Baby’s intensity and efficacy, is that few of these films, once they latch onto their particular Satanic gimmick, ever give much thought as to how the film might play to those who find it impossible to buy into the traditional concept of Satan. Polanski was smart enough to make his horror film as if constructing a paranoid psychological thriller. It works because the structure of the plot is viable whether you buy into the religious myth or not.
In films like The Mephisto Waltz, the fantastic particulars of the occult gimmick need to be introduced so quickly (in this instance, the ability to switch souls) that scant time is devoted to showing us how otherwise practical characters gradually come to believe the impossible.
In his shot from the decadent New Year's Eve costume ball sequence, Alan Alda (in fez and monkey mask) and Barbara Parkins offer further proof that just about everything Lady Gaga does has been done before
Jacqueline Bisset’s Paula is far too suspicious far too soon and it tips the hand of the plot. Likewise Myles’ swift, unquestioning acceptance of Duncan’s largess. Alda’s character is such a blank to us (we're given no sense of his values from the getgo, so we never know whether his abrupt acceptance into the jet-set compromises them) that the eradication of his soul holds no dramatic weight. How poignant his death would have been had we had a glimpse of what the rejuvenation of his abandoned music career might have meant to him, or to what extent his defeated sense of self is flattered by the attentions of one as rich and successful as Duncan Ely.
Similarly, I’ve never seen the death of a child in a movie given such short shrift. First off, Bisset looks like nobody’s mom on this planet, least of all the overexposed child actress cast in the role*; secondly, in order for the plot to progress, Bisset's character appears to grieve over the murder of her child for about 24 hours, then it’s back to the witch-hunt.
*(Pamelyn Ferdin, immediately recognizable as the voice of Lucy Van Pelt in the Peanuts TV specials, was near- unavoidable in the 70s, appearing on everything from Star Trek to The Streets of San Francisco.)
In skimming over the human drama, The Mephisto Waltz, like so many other genre films, miss the opportunity to have audiences engaged in anything other than the mechanics of plot and plotting.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As an occult thriller, The Mephisto Waltz plays it pretty straightforward down the line, telling its story crisply and entertainingly. It has its suspense and tension, but never once is it disturbing. Certainly not as disturbing as it could be, given the fundamental amorality of it all.
There’s a layer of a body-fetish subplot lying below the surface of The Mephisto Waltz’s soul-transplant theme that calls for a director attuned to the revulsion/attraction of body horror…someone like David Cronenberg. The fetish object in The Mephisto Waltz is Myles Clarkson. Duncan Ely wants him for his youth, but specifically for his hands. Roxanne wants her father, Duncan, and is willing to get to him through the body of Clarkson. Most perverse of all, when Paula finally learns that her husband is dead and that another man inhabits his body…it’s the body she wants, and (to her own surprise) she doesn’t really care who its owner is.
The film is awash with scenes and dialog emphasizing Myles’ body and physical desirability, both before and after its possession by Duncan:
Roxanne: (Ostensibly asking Paula’s permission to make a life-mask of Myles) “It’s alright then, I can do him?”
Abby: (To Paula about their newly acquired dog) “He wants daddy.”
Paula: “Don’t we all.”
Paula's best friend: "Oh! He's sexy...don't you think he's sexy? You should know better than I!"
Roxanne's ex-husband, Bill (Bradford Dillman) to Paula after she confesses that she still finds Myles sexually irresistible even though she knows it isn’t truly him: “They say the truth is, once you've had one of them (a Satan-worshipper), nothing else will quite satisfy you.”
With the utter disposability of Myles, the man, contrasted with escalating battles for his body, the overarching feeling you’re left with is that everybody loves Myles in parts, but not as a whole. Kind of like a perverse corruption of Cole Porter’s “The Physician.”
There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a story to tell and relaying it in as efficient and entertaining a manner as possible. The Mephisto Waltz succeeds on that score. But had it taken the time to explore the story’s emotional and sub-textural themes…who knows? It might have been a genuine Rosemary’s Baby contender.
Copyright © Ken Anderson