The Stepford Wives (1975)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 10/29/17
Cast: Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman, Tina Louise

What would happen if Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper made a horror movie? The result might be "The Stepford Wives." Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross) is an aspiring photographer in a loveless marriage with a lawyer named Walter (Peter Masterson). Against Joanna's wishes, she and her family move from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the quiet little town of Stepford, CN, where everything seems peaceful and dreadfully dull. She makes friends with another newcomer named Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), and they start noticing strange things about the creepy Mens Association and their overly docile and domesticated wives. Something sinister is going on, and Joanna fears that she might become the next victim.

A lot of horror that was written in the 1960s and 1970s was in response to the women's liberation movement, and the fear of what might happen if - heaven forbid - women were actually treated as equals and given opportunities of leadership and power. Such a radical notion probably made a much bigger impact in 1975 when the film first came out, but the outdated gender politics are confusing and antiquated by contemporary standards. The film serves as a subtle reminder of how far we've come with feminism and gender equality, and how far we still have to go.

Katherine Ross delivers a superb performance as the smart and sexy Joanna, and she's easy to relate to on every level. She's a frustrated wife, mother, and artist who's struggling to find and maintain her identity and independence in a male-dominated society that's intent on keeping her down. Paula Prentiss is delightful as Joanna's kooky and free-spirited friend, and her resemblance to Geena Davis is uncanny. All of the men in the film are vile and disgusting, but Joanna's husband is difficult to figure out. He's clearly conflicted by the situation he's in, but what sway does the Mens Association have over him? Does he really want to be a part of their insidious game, or is he just too scared to get out of town? Either way, he's a self-centered coward who dooms himself and his family right from the start. He, like the other Stepford husbands, is motivated by a warped and stupidly short-sighted sense of love that's only a skin-deep facade. They don't want free-thinking wives. They want obedient servants and slaves. You know, like back in the good old days when America was great. He won't fight the system, but Joanna will, and that makes her dangerous in the eyes of society.

It's a well made and attractive film, and the tension and suspense builds slowly and steadily until its unnerving conclusion. Unfortunately, the true nature of the wives is a bit too subtle, and could have been more effective if it had been handled a bit more horrifically. As it is, it's too vague and open-ended to make a lasting impression. The original story also called for the wives to be transformed into mini-skirted sex kittens, but the director opted for long summer dresses and wide-brimmed hats instead. The result is definitely creepy, but undermines one of the story's major themes. Overall, it's a smart and fun thriller with an excellent cast, and a wonderful portrait of 1970's Americana and its associated cultural paranoia.