"Notorious feminist shocker!" says the blurb, and it's right. Watching The Stepford Wives is guaranteed for (ninety minutes at least) to turn the most chauvinist neanderthal into a hairy-legged feminist. Damn, one of the movie's best scenes is a Women's Lib "consciousness-raising session". But is it horror? YOU BETCHA!
Like Rosemary's Baby, it's based on an Ira Levin novel. Rosemary's Baby is pretty renowned, but for my money The Stepford Wives is better. They're remarkably similar structurally, with a heroine (Rosemary/Joanna) who moves into a new environment to find that her husband has acquired some creepy new friends and is doing stuff behind her back - though for most of the film the appalling truth is only hinted at. However Rosemary's Baby's bogeymen were Satanists. This isn't the most promising basis for a scary story, since (dunno about you) I don't usually wake up at night worrying that the Devil might get me. To be fair, Ira Levin knew this - and both his novel and Polanski's film have a certain amount of sly fun being aware of their inherently silly premise.
However The Stepford Wives has a high concept that we can all connect to. It's entered the language; I've heard "Stepford Wife" used to describe real-life kitchen queens in our village. I imagine its impact was greater back in the seventies, when Women's Lib was still a hot new issue and sexual equality was still stumbling out of the fifties, but even today it's still pretty powerful. The satire still has bite. The gender conflict of this film is as timeless as anything could possibly be, with our heroine simultaneously struggling against vapid housewives and the *incredibly* creepy Men's Association.
It plays on the same paranoia Polanski mined in Rosemary's Baby, letting the oddness accumulate without ever coming out and *saying* what's going on. (Ira Levin was incredibly lucky with his film adaptations, by the way - a modern Hollywood producer would probably bastardise this as much as your average John Wyndham movie.) Audiences are strange things. Sometimes the script needs to repeat basic plot points thrice over before they sink home, but a little suspense can turn us into Sherlock Holmes, capable of drawing incredible inferences from the slightest clues. Since I prefer to have my intelligence flattered, not insulted, I like this kind of understated filmmaking. The psychiatrist's scene contains at least two kinds of misdirection, for instance, one of which might keep you wrong-footed for a while afterwards.
Admittedly at times the film might seem a little too deliberate in its pace - it could probably afford to lose ten minutes, though God knows from where. However by the end, for creepy effect it's worth it.
Katharine Ross does a fine job in the lead. Paula Prentiss as her anti-Wife sidekick turns in a performance that's... uh, courageous. In any other movie it would be over the top, but this film is so naturalistic and understated that you forget you're watching actors and don't judge in quite the same way. Prentiss is charming, sexy and dead right about Stepford. You like her! What's more, the film *needs* someone like that, the opposite of the Wives. The men are exactly what they should be, i.e. they'll make your skin crawl right off your body and try to escape under the door.
The central concept is pretty daft, nothing more than science fiction, really. However the film makes it plausible: (a) by avoiding lame "explanations" that could only raise further questions, and (b) showing you in detail the men's painstaking preparations, as they affect Joanna. The men's secret isn't just pulled from the scriptwriter's arse. They're methodical and sensible about it, so you're taken along for the ride. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am by how effortlessly this is achieved.
However I'm still puzzled by one thing, which may or may not be deliberate from the film-makers. Near the beginning, Joanna's children get on a school bus and the other kids stare at them like pod people. Were Stepford's children going the same way as their mothers? It's just a throwaway moment, not part of the main thrust of the film, but if so... brrr. It's sinister enough with the women, but taking it that final step would be just evil. I'm giving myself the shivers contemplating the implications.
Spawned a 2004 remake and three TV sequels: Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980), The Stepford Children (1987) and The Stepford Husbands (1996). This is one of those films that's probably completely different if you go into it knowing nothing. However even if you've got a fair idea of what's going on (as I did), you'll still be left guessing about the ending. Without giving anything away, it could go two ways. Personally, I think the option Ira Levin chose was perfect. Much of The Stepford Wives is slow-moving and perhaps a little too fond of playing the Understated Paranoia card, but it's all worth it in the end. It's powerful, sinister and has some killer satire. One of those films that must be seen, even if only once.