CULT CLASSIC: The Stepford Wives (1975)

The Stepford Wives (USA, 1975)
Directed by Bryan Forbes
Starring Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Nanette Newman, Peter Masterston 

Whenever classic films are poorly remade, they have the side effect of putting audiences off seeing the originals. Many who saw Frank Oz's ghastly remake of The Stepford Wives would have been so bored or enraged that they would have steered well clear of the original, believing it to be no better. It would be a shame if many came to this conclusion, since they would be depriving themselves of a smart and suspenseful film, which is still chilling and unnerving more than 35 years on.
While the remake boasted an all-star cast and was directed by a muppet (in more ways than one), the pedigree of the original Stepford Wives is mainly to be found behind the camera. It is based on the novel by Ira Levin, author of Rosemary's Baby and The Boys from Brazil. Levin was a master at taking a contemporary subject (in this case the male backlash against feminism) and playing it for a mainstream audience through smart and subtle allegory.
Levin's novel is adapted for the screen by William Goldman, who would win an Oscar the following year for his work on All The President's Men. He approaches the source material and subject matter with intelligence, acknowledging the need to play certain scenes with a straight face while leaving room for humour to emerge naturally. And the film is helmed by Bryan Forbes, best known for producing The Railway Children and directing Whistle Down The Wind. This film sees Forbes refining the thriller techniques of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, and returning to the theme of female manipulation that he first explored in The L-Shaped Room.
When The Stepford Wives was first released, many critics complained about its slow pacing; there was, they believed, not enough in the novel to fill out two hours, and by drawing out the action the final act was not as tense as it should be. In fact, the gentle pacing of the film is one of its most distinctive features compared to other thrillers, and one of its greatest strengths. We are drawn in very slowly, almost unconsciously, so that our plight mirrors that of the female characters. The only difference is that we emerged with our minds intact, and our spines more than a little tingled.
Forbes' intention with this film was to make "a thriller in sunlight." While Chinatown found inspiration in the smoke and shadows of film noir, The Stepford Wives is a close precursor to David Lynch in its all-too-perfect imagining of American suburbia. Stepford embodies the American Dream to such an extent that it cannot possibly be right: every house has its mailbox and white picket fence, and the children go to school on bright yellow buses.
By shooting the majority of the action in bright daylight, Forbes makes us second-guess about our expectations of Stepford. Even as we pick up on all the chocolate box features that would repulse us or put us on alert, we are bit by bit won over by the seeming goodwill of the town's inhabitants. As the film moves on and the creeping sense of dread grows, both we and Joanna are torn between dismissing our feelings as paranoia and believing them to be the truth. It only becomes an edgy horror movie in its last 20 minutes, and even then there is an unnerving reserve to it: there is only one tiny bit of blood, and no explosions or pyrotechnics when Bobby starts to go wrong.
The Stepford Wives is at its heart a dark satirical allegory of the male backlash against feminism. The Men's Association, both as an institution and in its activities, is a reaction to the political and social freedom that women have demanded and increasingly enjoyed since the early-20th century. The men's response is one of cowardice; rather than embracing women's new-found freedom, they look on them as an inferior species, whose independence should be controlled, and whose purpose should be restricted to cooking, cleaning, gossiping and sexual pleasure.
Whilst its allegorical device may be both extreme and bizarre, it would be wrong to dismiss The Stepford Wives as heavy-handed. Rather than characterise misogyny or sexism as something distant or extreme, the film attacks the extent to which the inferior position of women has been normalised. Joanna's husband joins the Men's Association with the very best intentions, wanting to get involved in the local community. The majority of scenes featuring women are set in kitchens, dining rooms or other purely domestic settings; we are challenged to explain why we expect such conversations to be staged in this way. The fact that so many (male) critics denounced the film as "chauvinistic" shows how much it touched a nerve when first released.
From another angle, The Stepford Wives examines the pressures surrounding women to confirm to male expectations in society. Joanna and Bobby find it difficult recruiting women to their cause because the women have their expectations of life shaped by those of their husbands. Even without its famous twist, the film convincingly conveys how so much of the social order has been shaped by the expectations of men. This is most grotesquely demonstrated by the nature of the wives' replacements; not only have their personalities been diluted, but their physical attributes have been considerably enhanced.
An illustration of both these themes is found in the role of photography. Joanna is introduced as a photographer, an activity which requires creativity, independence and ambition to succeed. In the opening scene, she takes a photo of a man crossing the street with a blow-up sex doll just before her husband gets in the car. What seems like an innocuous non-sequitur takes on an eerie quality as things moves on. As Joanna's independence is stifled in Stepford, so too is her art, as she is unable to sell her prints to a dealer during a brief return to New York.
Like many low-budget sci-fi or horror efforts, The Stepford Wives benefits from not having too many famous faces in its cast. Katherine Ross is terrific as Joanna, having just enough presence and charisma to be commanding without overpowering. Paula Prentiss is a good match for her as Bobby, channelling Diane Keaton's performances with Woody Allen in her quirky, fun-loving attitude. There is also good support from Nanette Newman, whose mechanical repetition of "I'll just die if I can't get this recipe" rivals anything in Westworld.
The one real problem with The Stepford Wives is its final act, in which Joanna infiltrates the Men's Association. Having spent so long creating unease through subtle diversions from reality, the film turns to classic horror tropes to really Hammer things home (pun intended). Joanna arrives at the Men's Association in the middle of a storm, complete with cheap lightning effects and heavy rain. The building itself is like an old-school gothic spook-house, with dark corridors and moments with mirror that wouldn't look out of place in The Haunting.

Normally this ready a reversion to horror convention would spoil a film's good work. But you find yourself wanting to forgive The Stepford Wives because of how hard it has worked to get to this point. Crucially, even when surrounded by all these clichés, the film doesn't lose sight of its substance for the sake of a few cheap shocks. The revelation of Joanna's pulchritudinous, dead-eyed double is terrifying whatever its surroundings.
The Stepford Wives is a really great film whose message has lost none of its chill or bite. Forbes brings the substance of Levin's novel to life with respect for the audience's intelligence, allowing us to question everything we see and unnerve ourselves in the process. The unsettling atmosphere thus created is enhanced by great performances and naturalistic acting, particularly by Katherine Ross. It's not perfect, nor is it Forbes' finest work, but it remains essential viewing for sci-fi & horror fans. 

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: Smart, suspenseful and still unnerving