DVDTalk's Adam Tyner reviewed the Anchor Bay release three summers ago. Based on a novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby), The Stepford Wives is an effective suburban thriller / science fiction tale with the kind of subtlety and methodical pacing that's all but vanished from big studio movies. This reviewer hasn't seen the remake, but critics have been mostly negative, with the majority of reviewers pegging it a toothless black comedy.
None of this is surprising. The original film is one of those "what's going on here?" stories; while very suspenseful, it doesn't hold well to multiple viewings once its secrets are revealed. Moreover, the film's title has entered mainstream consciousness to describe women leading fiercely traditional, '50s-style housewife existences and its story, already a variation of ideas long popular in science fiction, has become even more familiar through Stepford's string of awful made-for-TV sequels and other imitations.
But the original is still very good, even disturbing. Without giving too much away, the plot concerns Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross), who with husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and daughter Kim (Masterson's real-life daughter, Mary Stuart, making her screen debut), leave the hustle and bustle of New York City for the quiet life in Stepford Village, Connecticut. Despite what would appear an idyllic life among the old money colonial homes and immaculately trimmed lawns, Joanna feels something is amiss. The women of Stepford seem unusually happy leading lives completely subservient to their husbands. They live to clean -- when these uniformly voluptuous women aren't pleasing their often-nerdish husbands in bed.
To reveal any more would be unfair to first-time viewers, who are advised not to read further. The film has been interpreted both as pro- and anti-feminist, but these elements function more as a deux ex machine than anything else. If anything, it's mostly about men controlling women's lives to the point of completely snuffing out their identity, what makes them human individuals. It raises these points but doesn't pretend to offer any solutions.
Despite various last minute cast changes (see below), the picture is uniformily well acted, especially by Katherine Ross, whose well-scripted unease is presented in a way that's intelligent and believable. This is especially important, since the solution to the Stepford puzzle is basically absurd on many levels. The filmmakers were wise to keep details of Stepford's grand scheme vague with most specifics left unexplained altogther, relying instead on the actors to make it work.
One surprise acting-wise is the appearance of Tina Louise, embedded in American popular culture as Ginger on TV's Gilligan's Island. As one of the Stepford wives, Louise has a small but pivotal role whose personality change midway through the film gives it its first real shock. That Louise puts over both sides of the character while simultaneously making viewers forget her famous TV role is a real accomplishment.
Though it has a more conventional Old Dark House climax, The Stepford Wives is very much along the lines of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, bringing horror and paranoia to sunny suburbia. The film, directed with much intelligence by a Brit Bryan Forbes, is quintessentially '70s Americana, right down to its big Ford station wagons (with fake wood paneling), Mrs. Beasley dolls, and Sanka-drinking husbands.
Video & Audio
The transfer appears to be the same one used for the Anchor Bay release. Though presented in 16:9 anamorphic format, the film, shot for 1.85:1 widescreen, is very grainy throughout, suggesting that an internegative (IN) rather than an interpositive (IP) was sourced. Even on big-screen TVs this is only moderately distracting (both the image sharpness and color are fine), but it amounts to a good transfer of film elements a generation or two from what is normally used. The mono sound is likewise a little flat. A French audio track is included, but there are no subtitles.
The main extra is another carryover from the Anchor Bay release, The Stepford Life, a 2001 documentary produced by Blue Underground. The 17-minute show, in 4:3 format, is typical of their work: concise, informative, and deliciously salacious. It's so refreshing to see documentaries like this which not only get into the nuts-and-bolts of moviemaking, but which also aren't afraid to rock the boat a little bit. Most big studio documentaries are all smiles, not unlike the women of Stepford. This short, however, documents the many casting challenges and changes, along with heated conflicts between director Bryan Forbes and credited screenwriter William Goldman. Ross, co-star Paula Prentiss (very good as Joanna's no-nonsense pal), Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman (director Forbes's actress-wife), and producer Edgar J. Scherick (who died in 2002) are also interviewed.
Also included is a brief trailer, in 16:9 format with text, that's narrated by an uncredited Anthony Perkins. Two 30-second radio spots supplement the advertising material, and finally there's a well-written Bryan Forbes biography that, like all of Anchor Bay / Blue Underground's title, outclasses what one usually finds on Paramount titles.
The list of classic and near-classic science fiction movies with worthy remakes is a short one (the Philip Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers comes to mind), and by most accounts Frank Oz's remake of The Stepford Wives falls well short of the original. But the original is still out there, a creepy if modest little film that still holds up 30 years after it was made.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.