Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)

Here’s one of the things wrong with the United States.  Except for Sisters and The Exorcist, every movie I’ve discussed this month was rated PG (or GP, the equivalent at the time) when it was first released in theaters.  These movies contained brutal deaths by hacksaws, hatchets and knives, vicious attacks by rats, snakes and spiders, and gruesome depictions of brain surgery, vampire bites and premeditated murder.  One of them even foretold the destruction of Earth by nuclear bomb, and it was rated G!  We didn’t mind that “general audiences” watched these movies; or, at the strictest, watched them under “parental guidance.”

Throw sex into the mix, though, and the movie was automatically rated R.  Do you realize what that suggests?  It’s perfectly fine for our children to witness violence, but heaven forbid they witness the most natural act of nature.  It’s no wonder that we live in such a violent society and so many people have hang-ups about sex.  Take, for example, the 1975 movie, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud.  There’s nothing scary about it.  Oh, it’s a decent thriller, but (heaven forbid!) there’s frequent nudity, tastefully filmed scenes of mutually consensual intercourse, and a scene where Margot Kidder plays with herself in the bathtub.

This movie caused some controversy in the Owens household that lingers to this day.  I remember it being another one of those movies that, based on the TV commercials, I really wanted to see.  It was a fairly big thing for a parent to take his or her child to an R-rated movie, I guess.  My mother addressed her specific concerns with me.  They came primarily from the fact that Jennifer O’Neill, one of the stars of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, had previously starred in Summer of ’42, in a very adult, sexual role.  She eventually relented and I distinctly recall sitting with her at a weekday matinee in Oklahoma City.

My mother doesn’t remember any of the stories I’ve been telling this month; however, she remembers taking me to see The Reincarnation of Peter Proud.  She recently told me how uncomfortable she felt, especially when we left the theater and she got the evil eye from several older women in the lobby.  My brother, who would have been five years old at the time remembers the controversy over the movie and being told there was “no way” he was going to be able to see it.  All this over a little sex.  How is that so harmful?  I wonder if it’s because, in general, "we" are uncomfortable talking about sex.

So, was all the controversy worth it?  What kind of movie is The Reincarnation of Peter Proud today?  I quite like it.  I think my only issue with a child seeing it is that he or she would probably find it boring.  It’s fairly talky, there’s not a lot of action and the subject matter is a little (dare I say) intellectual.

The movie opens with a vivid dream of a man’s murder in a lake.  College professor Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin) wakes up in a cold sweat and his girlfriend, Nora (Cornelia Sharpe) says, “Jesus, I thought I was sleeping with another man.”  Little does she know how right she is.  Peter comes to believe that he is the reincarnation of the murdered man.  Investigating the phenomenon at an occult bookstore, he asks for books on reincarnation.  The clerk points him towards Edgar Cayce and says, “Everyone’s into it these days.”

I can vouch for that.  In the mid-70s, reincarnation was a popular subject.  It wasn’t only horror movies (Audrey Rose, The Manitou, Night of Dark Shadows) that dealt with reincarnation, but also two of the decade’s most popular comedies (All of Me and Heaven Can Wait).  As a teenager, I read Cayce and became quite interested in the idea of reincarnation.  (It doesn’t seem that I hear much about it these days; I think time travel has replaced it as the fantastical pop culture “concept du jour.”)

The entire movie is about Peter discovering "who he is."  Spotting a familiar town on the local news, he travels to Massachusetts to find it.  Once there, as more memories return, the dreams go away (except for the one pestering murder in the lake dream).  He ultimately learns he is the reincarnation of Jeffrey Curtis, a philandering husband to the daughter of a rich banker.  It was his wife, Marcia (Margot Kidder) who beaned him on the head with an oar in the lake nearly 30 years ago.

Curtis apparently had a three-month old daughter at the time.  When he meets the grown woman, Ann (Jennifer O’Neill), he falls in love with her.  Here is where the primary conflict of the movie arises.  If yo think about it, as Peter becomes more in touch with his previous self, he'd actually be sleeping with his own daughter.  The movie doesn’t shy away from that awkwardness.  He acknowledges it.  Sam (Paul Hecht), the parapsychologist who’s been helping him acknowledges it.

I like the way The Reincarnation of Peter Proud handles this.  First, Peter is repulsed by kissing her; he knows it could be considered incestuous.  Then, Sam reminds him how inappropriate it is.  But the relationship is really just part of the process of Peter discovering himself.  Although he is the reincarnation of Jeffrey Curtis, that isn’t who he is now.  I think falling in love with Ann is what helps him eventually accept what is happening to him and reconcile the inner turmoil.

(Spoiler alert.)  Not that Peter is going to be around very much longer to have to reconcile anything.  Marica is alive and well, albeit an alcoholic.  Peter’s mannerisms and outbursts convince her that Jeffrey has come back to torment her.  Remember, she did kill him once.  I wonder if the ending of the movie, besides being a real downer, is making a statement that Peter’s relationship with Ann was wrong after all.  I’m certain the filmmakers wanted to take that stance, lest they be accused of saying incest is OK.

There’s one aspect I think could have elevated The Reincarnation of Peter Proud from a good movie to a great one.  It’s the dreams themselves.  Early in the movie, it’s discovered through a sleep study that Peter isn’t dreaming at all.  In fact, without the release that dreaming provides on a regular basis, he could begin to have serious psychological issues.  But this concept is not fully explored.  I think it could have been more of a reason to motivate Peter.  Instead, it’s just kind of a throwaway idea.

What about the sex?  As you can imagine, it’s very tame by today’s standards.  It is, however, very matter of fact.  Peter and Nora talk about it openly; apparently he’s a tiger in the sack.  The repeated scenes of the build-up to Jeffrey Curtis’s murder include nudity, both male and female.  When it finally happens between Peter and Ann, it’s actually the most tasteful scene in the movie.  What about Margot masturbating in the bathtub?  The scene actually goes a long way toward explaining her motivations and is not salacious or titillating in any way.

In 2014, I still think reincarnation is a fascinating subject.  Have we lived other lives?  Is our purpose on Earth to finally achieve some type of enlightenment so that we may ultimately pass to another consciousness?  Whether or not you believe in an afterlife, it’s a more comforting thought than believing we simply cease to exist.  I’m not the only one who thinks about it, it seems.  A remake of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is in development.  I don’t see how it could be as controversial as this one was forty years ago.  But I sure hope it will be as entertaining.

Tomorrow:  Race with the Devil!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Urban Dictionary defines “Stepford Wife” as a term “used to describe a servile, compliant, submissive, spineless wife who happily does her husband’s bidding and serves his every whim dutifully.”  The 1975 movie, The Stepford Wives, based on Ira Levin’s novel, would probably add to that definition that these women also give their husbands the best sex of their lives, even (heaven forbid) in the middle of the afternoon.

The term is engrained in our society, usually with negative connotations. Nobody wants to be a Stepford Wife.  We all want to believe we have free will and can experience our own thoughts and emotions.  It’s a terrifying notion that someone could take that away from us.  If you’ve never seen the original movie (and I pray you’ve never seen the awful remake), you may not really understand how effective it was, especially in the mid-70s, at bringing this term into our consciousness.

When researching this post, I happened upon another term with which I was not familiar:  cult of domesticity.  This was a prevailing value system in the 19th century among the upper and middle classes in the United States and Great Britain.  It maintained that “true women” should possess four virtues: piety, purity, submission and domesticity.  At various times in history, women have advocated for their rights and the cult of comesticity ceased to exist.

In the 1950s though, it rose again when television began to portray women as stay at home mothers.  The cult of domesticity shaped an idealized myth about family and the woman’s role within it.  The women’s liberation movement in the 1970s was another period of rebellion for the gender and The Stepford Wives was a brilliant satire on the phenomenon.  Annoyed by their wives, the men of a seemingly idyllic town create a literal cult of domesticity by replacing them with robots.

Where do the members of the “men’s association” come from and how did they coincidentally converge in Stepford?  I mean, one of them used to work for Disney (whom I assume designed animatronics), one of them is a famous artist (whom I assume helps create the lifelike features of the robots) and one of them is conducting a speech study (which I know for a fact is a ruse for collecting the sound files for the robots, with the exception of the word “archaic,” it seems.)

Walter Eberhart (Peter Masterson) is merely a lawyer.  But he moves his wife and two children from the hustle and bustle of New York City to a suburban community where “you don’t even have to lock your doors.”  It doesn’t take long for him to join the Men’s Association and see the potential value of replacing his wife with a robot, particularly when she is so darned independent and opinionated.  Just leave him alone and let him do his work, dammit!

And it doesn’t take his wife Joanna (Katherine Ross) very long to figure out something fishy is going on in Stepford.  When an equally independent and opinionated woman moves to town with her husband, the two women find a common bond in trying to figure out what the hell is going on.  Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) comes to the conclusion that there’s something in the water.  She’s afraid Joanna won’t believe her theory, which is funny because it’s less fantastical than the truth.

(Spoiler alert.)  What does it say about the cult of domesticity that things don’t end well for Joanna?  Not only does it provide a downer of an ending, even though I love the dark sci-fi outcome, but it may also state that no matter how much women want the same opportunities as men, their place is really just in the home.  You’d think Levin might be sexist, perhaps misogynistic, but that’s not the tone of The Stepford Wives.  It doesn’t take itself that seriously.

But it is a seriously fun movie.  I’ve already alluded that it’s terrifying and satirical, but it’s also a brilliant suspense thriller.  When Joanna and Bobbie meet Charmaine, she’s a normal, tennis-playing housewife who agrees to help them establish a women’s equivalent to the men’s association.  But a couple days later, the tennis court is being torn up to make room for her husband’s swimming pool and Charmaine is more concerned with cleaning and baking.

Joanna feels ultimate despair, though, when Bobbie is converted.  More than anyone, Bobbie represents the humanity that’s lost when these women become robots.  It’s a huge loss for a woman who feels trapped in her surroundings, and it’s a huge loss for an audience who loves this wacky woman.  (Prentiss is wonderful as Bobbie.  I became a huge fan of the actress after seeing The Stepford Wives.)  Even the fate of Bobbie’s robot is heartbreaking in the context of the movie.


Besides the psychological terror described, the finale of The Stepford Wives is physically scary as Joanna goes to the men’s association (which happens to be an old, dark house) on a stormy night to retrieve her children, but instead meets her fate.  Confronting the leader, she asks, “Why.”  To which he replies, not in endless, moustache-twirling villain-speak, but with a simply statement that is infinitely more effective, “Because we can.”

Firmly planted in our pop culture landscape, The Stepford Wives spawned three TV movie sequels, Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children, and even a gender reversed version called The Stepford Husbands.  None were nearly as enjoyable as the original.  Nor was the 2004 remake.  (Although at the time The Stepford Wives was ripe for an update, or even an all-out spoof, the remake succeeded in being neither.)  Forget all of those, but don’t forget the original.

Tomorrow:  The Reincarnation of Peter Proud!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Exorcist (1973)

What can I possibly say about The Exorcist that hasn't already been said?  I don't even have a memorable story to tell about the first time I saw it.  I know it was very controversial and, because I was underage at 10-years old, my dad had to accompany me to see it when it was released in 1973.  But, it didn't really make a lasting impression on me and has never been one of my favorite movies.  In fact, I felt almost like I had to watch it for my Countdown to Halloween, because it is undoubtedly one of the landmark films of the 1970s.  No body of work about horror movies of the 70s can neglect it.

I watched The Exorcist recently, as I did all the movies that are subjects on my blog this month, and learned three things about it that I had either forgotten or I did not realize.  First of all, regardless of genre, it is an excellent movie!  Second, while it is definitely an intense and disturbing movie, I don't know that it's a particularly scary movie.  Third, maybe (as I've sometimes read) The Exorcist isn't really a horror movie at all.  Please allow me to elaborate upon these three points.

The Exorcist is an excellent movie!

Due to its reputation, my opinion of The Exorcist developed during the years that I never actually watched the movie.  It wasn't one I watched over and over again.  I understood it to be a classic horror movie, a must-see for anyone who loves the genre.  When I watched it recently, though, I realized that whether or not that's what it is, it is also an expertly made movie.  Does anyone remember it was nominated for ten Academy Awards?  And not even for make-up or special effects (I wonder if there were categories for those back then).

The Exorcist was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair), Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Best Art/Set Direction and Best Film Editing.  It won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay (William Peter Blatt) and Best Sound.  Every one of these was well deserved.  The nominees lost to the likes of The Sting (which won seven awards that year), Glenda Jackson, John Houseman, Tatum O'Neal and George Roy Hill.  As usual (until The Silence of the Lambs in 1991), the subject matter probably clipped its number of wins.

Burstyn is phenomenal in The Exorcist as the mother of a teenage girl who becomes possessed by demonic forces.  Her reactions to what's happening are natural and realistic.  But for the key moment that draws me to this conclusion, don't watch how she responds to the various atrocities she witnesses.  Instead, watch how she responds when she realizes her daughter may have killed someone.  She's been holding in her feelings when she's chatting with the detective (Lee J. Cobb) investigating the death of her friend, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), but as soon as he leaves and she shuts the door, the floodgates open.  Maybe she doesn't understand what's happening in her daughter's bedroom upstairs, but she understands murder.

Friedkin is a master behind the camera of The Exorcist.  The movie is composed of mostly short scenes with no clear idea of the passing of time between them.  Some key events aren't even witnessed, such as the death of Dennings.  In a way, we as the spectators are experiencing the same perspective of events as the characters living them.  One of his creative choices, I assume, was to use music sparingly.  Very rarely during the movie, is there music in the background.  The famous "Tubular Bells" music comes early when Burstyn is walking down the street, not during any horrific scene.  Often, the only soundtrack is the low, guttural growling of the possessed Regan MacNeil (Blair).

The Exorcist is intense and disturbing, but not necessarily scary.

If you're not disturbed by images of a 12-year old girl spewing green projectile vomit at a priest or her head spinning completely around 360 degrees, I hope you are by the vision of her stabbing her crotch with a crucifix.  These are scenes that don't lessen in impact due to the passing of years.  But I'm not sure I find them "scary".  For me, it is far more terrifying to witness the looks on the poor girl's face and in her eyes during the moments these things are not happening.  She's lost somewhere and needs help, but she is helpless.  Whether or not her possession is a metaphor for something else, no parent should be able to hear Regan's cries without his or her heart breaking.  But that's more sad than scary.

I'm scared in movies when I think its events could really happen.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I'm scared in movies when there's a threat of danger to someone, particularly to someone to whom I can relate.  I'm not saying demonic possession couldn't happen, but I don't feel it's likely to happen to me or my family.  I mean, there's a larger chance one of us would be stalked by a slasher.  In The Exorcist, I never feel a threat to anyone but Regan herself, therefore, I can't relate.  It also comes down to suspense.  Even unimaginable circumstances can be made terrifying with suspense.  The Exorcist is not a suspenseful movie.  Again, it's intense and disturbing, but not suspenseful.

Look at how Friedkin presents his horrors.  They are sudden and unexpected, with no gradual build-up and reveal.  For example, the first two instances that something funny is happening to Regan are so matter-of-fact that they're nearly throwaways.  Regan mentions in passing her imaginary friend, Captain Howdy, and later walks into a party and urinates on the floor.  Both of these events occur with neither fanfare, nor, as mentioned earlier, music.  There are no attempts to build suspense with scenes like this; they simply happen.

The Exorcist isn't really a horror movie at all.

This may be my most controversial point.  But think about it.  I've just explained that the director does nothing to build suspense, or even shock the audience with sudden surprises.  Horrible things happen, but not for the sake of scaring the audience.  In an introduction to the version of The Exorcist I watched, Friedkin says the movie is about faith.  "Yeah, right," I thought, "he must be ashamed of the horror genre and he's trying to distance himself from it."  But after watching it, I tend to agree.  Why else is the movie split between what's happening in Chris MacNeil's Georgetown brownstone and what's happening in the life of despondent priest, Father Damien Karras (Miller)?

If you can't tell from the look in his eyes, Karras flat out tells a colleague that he thinks he's lost his faith.  In the obvious sense, the fact that he accepts that Regan has indeed been possessed is how he regains it.  I mean, if you believe in the devil, you must also believe in God, right?  But in a less obvious way, The Exorcist is all about faith.  For one thing, the MacNeils have no faith; they are not religious.  What does that say about the possession?  Were they targeted by demons because they were godless people?  Or are demons just indiscriminate predators?  It's fairly certain that faith will not automatically protect you.  In the face of horrible things, how important is fate?  Apparently, it cannot protect you.

I could easily be convinced that The Exorcist is more a drama than a horror film.  In fact, it's almost a really ugly, albeit well-made, version of a disease-of-the-week TV movie.  What is wrong with Regan?  Doctors think she has a lesion in her temporal lobe.  ("There's nothing wrong with her bed; there's something wrong with her brain.")  But there's nothing on her scan.  It must be drugs, then.  Nope?  Well, let's call the psychiatrist.  When hypnosis fails, let's call an exorcist.  I mean, if Regan believes she is possessed, then maybe believing the demon is being cast from her will heal her.  You know what?  This would make an excellent episode of House!


All I can say definitively is that when I re-watched, The Exorcist, I loved it!  Technically, the filmmakers and actors were at the tops of their games in producing one of the rare movies to which I would award a rating of 9 out of 10 on the Internet Movie Database.  The fact that it provides the opportunity for debate 41 years after it was first released is a testament to its status as a classic.  I'd like to encourage people who have never seen it because of its perceived genre to cast their preconceptions aside.  Don't think of The Exorcist as only a horror movie.  It is a simply a movie, perhaps one of the best.

Tomorrow:  The Reincarnation of Peter Proud!