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February 24, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #60 - The Stepford Wives

This is the only horror movie in which the men encourage the women to wear bras.  I'm not sure if that's the most important thing to say about The Stepford Wives, but it's the first thing that came to my mind when I started typing this post.

As far as this Mike is concerned, The Stepford Wives is the definitive horror film about a woman who is being tortured.  It's certainly a cheesy film and sets itself up to be spoofed, but - like similar '70s hits Soylent Green and Westworld - it's the rare kind of film that puts a character in an inconceivable situation and then insists that we identify with that character as they face an unspeakable reality.  Inside its ridiculous look at humanity - which is of course meant to parody the ridiculous perceptions some have of humanity - there's a shocking amount of drama as we see a poor woman bullied to conform to a fate that others have put together for her.
The movie focuses on Joanna and Walter Eberhart, played by Katharine Ross and Peter Masterson, a New York City couple who move to the quiet suburban town of Stepford to get away from troubles of the city (like men walking down the street with mannequins under their arms).  While Walter is ready for suburban living and wants nothing but a quiet life, Joanna is a "shutterbug" who longs for excitement and just wants to be able to do her thing.  As she begins to meet the women of Stepford, who look like they just stepped out of and episode of Leave it to Beaver, she slowly begins to go mad at the idea of becoming one of these mindless and submissive housewives.  Unfortunately, she's got good reason to be afraid.

There are few things in horror movies that really infuriate me, and few villains that actually get under my skin.  But the Stepford Wives gives me a rare "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it any more" kind of feeling because - to put it simply - the men in this film make me sick.  When Walter Eberhart - long before he knows of the men's council that runs Stepford - looks across the street and tells his neighbor that his wife "cooks as good as she looks", I become seriously annoyed with these men.  Worse, I know real human people who share their opinion that the woman exists only to serve.  Now I'm no truly enlightened male - I admit to loving a mindless pair of boobs as much as the next guy - but anyone who could undervalue a woman like this is a little bit terrifying to me.
Look everybody!  It's Dee Wallace!!!!
The thing about Joanna Eberhart is that Joanna Eberhart is kind of fantastic.  Though the film puts her in plenty of token feminist situations - again, I must point out her inability to put on a bra - the film does an incredible job of pointing out just how wonderfully human she is.  As she interacts with those around her while trying to take care of her children or convince that bonehead Walter that there's something wrong in Stepford, Ross infuses an appealing vigor into Joanna through her drive to be a strong, independent woman.  Her resolve shines through as her path through the film becomes more difficult, and a scene in which she shares her fears with a female psychiatrist is one of the more heartbreaking scenes I can recall in a horror film.  Ross' performance in this scene particularly is on par with any performance in any movie, and as she fights through tears to proclaim that she's afraid of becoming something who "won't be me" I get a little more furious with the men around her.
Walter Eberhart is not a total loss, and the early film scene in which he appears shocked after his first visit to Stepford's Men's Group shows a man who is clearly conflicted over what he's seen.  I'm not sure at what point in the movie Walter loses that, but what he loses as he becomes an antagonist to Joanna is awfully sad.  The other men in the movie show far less range and it's easy to see their old fashioned, "men only", morals on their sleeves.  Joanna's attempts to stand up to them are courageous, but it becomes increasingly evident that she's doomed as the women around her are immune to overpower their husbands.

Sadly, I don't know if there's a horror movie out there that presents such a tragic look at gender roles and those who discredit women as successfully as The Stepford Wives does.  It's a film that thoroughly fascinates me, because I'm forced to believe that there are men out there who treat their significant others as if they should be slaves.  I know there aren't dudes actually turning their women into Disneyland inspired robots - at least I hope there aren't - but let's be honest.  There hasn't exactly been a grand change in gender dynamics in the past 35 years.
Think about that.  In the 35 years since this film was released, we went from console TVs with four channels to flatscreens on walls that have better picture quality than our eyes are trained to see and more channels than you can shake a stick at.  We went from vinyl to cassettes to CDs to thousands of magical digital songs inside a tiny metal block that's the size of a fish stick.  Oh, and we have this internet thing which allows a guy who grew up on a hog farm in Iowa to post his ramblings on a thirty-five year old movie so people from Los Angeles to the Philippines can read it at the click of a button.  We - and by we, I of course mean smart people who invent things - did a lot of great things to change our world....but many men still can't be bothered to spend time in the kitchen or help raise their children. Maybe this society of old fashioned men will die out eventually, but it's still a lot further away than the invention of that Back to the Future hoverboard is.

(One thing that has changed for the worst in the past 35 years, you ask?  Easy - WALLPAPER.  When's the last time you saw something as awesome as THIS!)
Maybe I'm overthinking the world of Stepford, but I'm a trifle fired up by the film.  And when a horror film can so clearly bring real world issues home and can remind us of just how idiotic and unfair life can really be - that's the kind of horror film I want to come home to.  So thank you to you, The Stepford Wives, for keeping us on our toes and reminding us to watch out for the good 'ol boys.  You know, the ones who don't know how good they've got it when a fair haired creature that smells better than them offers to spend time with 'em.  You're a fine feminine horror movie, and I promise I'll never try to convince you to put one of those silly uplifting bras on.
That's two points for Ms. Ross! ;)


Andre Dumas said...

You better not change me into a Stepford Wife TH.
I love this film though, I too was constantly thinking about gender roles for weeks after seeing this. And even still today this continues to be true. Mostly I enjoy once again, how people miss the significance of a satire. Yes Ira Levine was totally misogynist.......*sarcasm*

Chris Regan said...

Great film, my wife's favourite horror film too. You make a good if slightly unsettling point about how things haven't really changed too much since then. Films certainly have changed - I can't imagine seeing a horror film these days that deals with genuine issues as effectively as this one does.

R.D. Penning said...

I think that post was longer than any Halloween or Blob post you have had on here, haha.

I wish I had a Stepford wife.

The Mike said...

Thanks all.

Andre - You shall never be a Stepford twitterer to me! And I don't know why, I didn't even think about the fact that Levin wrote this until I was watching the trailer. Man knew how to make me sad about being a man.

Chris - Good point, the movies certainly have changed for the worse in their willingness to attack like this. I fought and fought not to mention the sterilized remake in my post, but it's a perfect example of how Hollywood's avoided issues.

Russ - You best not be Stepfording anyone on my watch! The Mike is calling Stepfordizers out from now on!