Friday, May 27, 2011

The Stepford Wives (1975)

The Stepford Wives (1975) is often considered one of the classic horror movies of the 1970s, a decade which is hardly deficient when it comes to horror. The decade saw a large upswing in supernatural elements in horror films, probably brought on the the success of Rosemary's Baby in 1968. The novel Stepford Wives is based on is written by Ira Levin, the same man who wrote Rosemary's Baby. The former film was nominated for two Oscars, so it probably seemed like a safe artistic and critical bet to make Stepford. Despite its legacy being degraded by a string of sequels and a recent comedic remake, the film retains a lot of its dignity and still seems timely today.

The plot revolves around a man and his wife moving from New York City to Stepford, a seemingly idyllic town. Our protagonist is Joanna, played by The Graduate's Katharine Ross. She is not your typical housewife, which puts her out of place in Stepford, a town where every wife is almost subservient to her husband. Joanna has aspirations to be a photographer, and is immediately differentiated from the other woman of Stepford in her determination and desire to succeed as an individual.

She soon forms a friendship with Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), who is also new in town. The two women bond over their separation from the other Stepford wives, and they grow to depend on each other and suspect that something is going wrong in Stepford. The bulk of the movie is dedicated to building a slow sense of discomfort in the viewer. Joanna and Bobby try to set up a group where women can talk away from men, but the only things other women seem to be interested in talking about are cleaning products.

It's necessary to remember that the film is from the 1970s, which favoured building tension over scares, unlike modern horror films. Even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released the year before, builds an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty before the plot explodes into motion. This approach doesn't always lead to the most exciting films, as it favours a slow accumulation of details over jump scares, but it usually provides the viewer with a more satisfying experience, and often leaves them with something to think about after the film is finished.

I've never read any of Ira Levin's novels, but if the two I've referenced are any indication, he is a writer with a very specific set of themes that interest him. Both Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives feature sympathetic female protagonists who move to a new area and become suspicious of the people around them. They feature themes of gender relations, both in a larger, societal sense as well as the relationship between spouses. On a more basic level, the films are interested in paranoia and suspicion, and the sinister events that might be unfolding under the surface of what seems innocent. Consequently, both of them operate on several levels. We can read them as films about women who have gone insane under the pressure of everyday life. Alternatively, the horrors they face represent the societal factors that were hurting women at the time.

Where the films differ is in the atmosphere they try to create. Those who have seen Rosemary will probably never forget an early dream sequence that marks one of the most crucial plot points. It is a surreal nightmare, filled with imagery designed to unsettle the viewer. Stepford has nothing of this kind, preferring to aim for verisimilitude even in its maddest moments. This is not to favour one film over the other, but I do prefer Polanski's feverish approach to the material.

Despite this, it's hard to criticise Forbes' direction. Much of the film's power comes from his composition and quiet building of atmosphere. He constructs the film to constantly bring us back to the main themes. We see Joanna imprisoned by shadow bars or from the other side of a window, highlighting her status as a prisoner in both Stepford and her marriage. This school of image-making often makes me squirm as it reminds me of the on-the-nose cinematography of The Graduate. Still, it's easy to understand when we place the film among other films of the same time with similar cinematic vocabulary. There are a lot more fades than I can make a justifiable case for, jarring against the film's tone without saying anything meaningful. They would be indefensible if it wasn't for the shot above, where we see the idea of women as images created by men economically conveyed with a smart fade. The score's gradual transformation from the beginning of the film to the last act is also an impressive feature. It seems like it will be maddeningly chipper in the opening scenes, but as it twists into something gradually more sinister, we see that it is geared into the themes of the film as well.

It may be clear from this review that I am less interested in Stepford as a film than as a document of a particular point in history. It's not that the film is dated at all. It has remained just as relevant, given that women are still fighting for equality. Indeed, it'd be a lot more reassuring to say that it seemed alien. Parts of it are still recognisable in today's society, particularly in smaller towns. This makes it even harder to understand the charges that the film is "anti-woman" that were leveled against in 1975. This makes me even more likely to be forgiving of how obvious the film seems to be at times, given that it was not perceived that way in 1975. It seems clear that the film is intended to be a satire of perceived gender roles, and a criticism of patriarchal society. Then again, many people didn't understand Vertigo's intentions when it was released, and that film also shares a lot of things with Stepford.

Spoilers from this point. I know it's an old film and the plot is one of those things that's been absorbed by popular culture to the point that most know it, but I want to preserve anyone who made it this far unspoiled.

It's hard to understand the "anti-woman" label feminists slapped the film with, especially since it is in large part an examination of the social forces that render women into domestic servants to their husbands. Joanna, with her fascination in photography and ambitions for herself, is severely contrasted with these women. I've been told that she and Bobbie are better developed in the novel, but it is hard not to sympathise with Joanna. Horror movies of the time were often masterful in their establishment of their protagonists' basic personality attributes, putting us immediately on their side. Joanna's photography is only mentioned in a few scenes, but Katharine Ross makes it an integral part of the film when she talks about her desire to be remembered when she's gone. This desire makes her ultimate fate all the more tragic.

This is also fascinating in that it presents a woman capturing the image. I previously referenced Vertigo as a touchstone for this film, and this is particularly clear in the photography subplot. Vertigo establishes males as the capturer of the image, with women being degraded to images instead of individuals. Joanna's interest in photography makes us more aware of the film's meta-textual leanings (estabblished with somewhat less skill in a conversation about one of Joanna's old boyfriends, "Raymond Chandler.") and make us examine her purpose in the film's narrative. We see that horror films are finally shifting to allow women the typically male status as protagonist. Stepford is not as complex as Hitchcock's film, but it is definitely attempting to push against patriarchy, both in cinema and in society at large.

This becomes most obvious in the last minutes of the film, when it is implied that Joanna is strangled by a black-eyed clone of herself. The film then cuts to a scene of the Stepford wives shopping at the supermarket, all greeting each other blankly. We see that Joanna has been replaced by her clone, and all of the energy and passion is gone. I've read that the original intent was to have the Stepford-ised Bobbie kill Joanna, which would have been an inferior ending in my opinion. The image of the black-eyed Joanna stretching out the stocking is horrifying, moreso because we've waited almost two hours to see it. Joanna's death at the hand of her own clone is also more ideologically complex. Joanna makes a hysterical speech at a late point in the movie, claiming she'll be replaced by someone who looks like her "but doesn't take photos." The two versions of Joanna play on the idea of the double, which is a hugely common idea in genres like science fiction and horror. If we take Joanna's death at the hands of her clone at a deeper level, we see the female's desire to please men crushing her personality and ambitions. Death at Bobbie's hands would be horrifying, but it would imply that women are destroying each other, which is not a message the film needs to convey.

This is not to say that the film blames women for their own problems, although the film's references to Vertigo do become somewhat problematic in their (probably accidental) suggestion that Joanna could be unnaturally obsessed with turning people into images. However, this is averted by Joanna being more interested in photography as an art form and a way to be remembered than in particularly gendered terms. We can also see that Joanna is more technologically inclined, while we see a man draw a picture of her. This automatically gives us the implicit impression that Joanna is more advanced than the men of Stepford. Even so, it is possible the people who criticised the film could have thought that the film was against Joanna. Despite this, we see the machinations of the man throughout the film harming women. Their machinations that force women into these gender roles because they have an obsession with perfect and servile wives, unable to deal with the reality of women with ambition and personality. This shows an implicit criticism of patriarchal society within the film.

The Stepford Wives is a fantastically atmospheric horror film, truly representative of its time period. It may dig as far into its own ideology as Vertigo or be as vivid Rosemary's Baby, but it is a worthy and competent film. Looking around the internet, I couldn't find much contemporary discussion of the film. This saddens me, as it has aged well and is competently crafted. Again, I may be more interested in the ideology, implications and social context of the film, but the film itself is a solid entry into the horror genre.

Final Grade: A-


  1. An enjoyable read The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.

  2. Thanks, Rohit. I haven't read any of Levin's books, but I should, give that I think Stepford is pretty great and Rosemary's Baby is fantastic.