THE STEPFORD WIVES
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman, Tina
Louise, Carol Rossen
Director: Bryan Forbes
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 115 Minutes
Release Date: June 15, 2004
"I like to see women doing small household chores."
"You came to the right town."
The Stepford Wives are the perfect spouses for anyone who has a nineteenth century or earlier definition for that. They cook, they clean, they look perfect, they chatter on in second hand phrases about their favorite household products, and they express unqualified devotion to their husbands. So why do they freak us out so much?
Based on a novel by Rosemary’s Baby author Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives is not exactly horror, but something about it remains delightfully uncomfortable after 25 years. It was a story that came out when Women’s Liberation was in our national consciousness, and as such, many mistook it for a misogynistic film. The truth is, this isn’t a story that degrades women…it degrades men.
The irony not only makes a statement, but continually forces men to re-evaluate their wants and needs from their partner. There are plenty of guys who would say they want a wife who will be a great cook, mother, lover, and homemaker. Well, here they are, in Stepford…so why doesn’t it seem like a fantasy come true?
For Joanna (Ross), Stepford seems like a long way from her native New York when she moves there with her family, but for her husband Walter (Masterson), it seems like a dream come true: a little suburban paradise where the neighbors are friendly, the air is clean, and people don’t even bother to lock their doors. He takes up immediately with the other husbands of the neighborhood, in a strange club called the Men’s Association, but for Joanna, relating to the women of Stepford is something akin to an out-of-body experience. She cannot relate to the strange parade of June Cleavers, who are all neatly dressed, perfectly made up, and seem to live for nothing but housework.
The two exceptions are Bobbie (Prentiss) and Charmaine (Louise), both also newcomers to the area. Both are smart, independent women who don’t live to serve their husbands, but when the three of them unite to try and bring a sense of liberation to Stepford, it doesn’t do much good.
Things begin to take a turn for the surreal when Charmaine eventually succumbs to the Stepford wives’ mentality. Her friends watch in disbelief as she voluntarily tears up her cherished tennis court and speaks on and on about what a good wife she’s going to be from now on. Is it something in the water?
The truth is far more sinister, and far more apparent when Bobbie herself becomes a Stepford wife, leaving Joanna completely alone, but thoroughly convinced she must be next. I won’t spoil the surprise for you if you haven’t seen the movie, but it’s a satisfying one, even if there are plenty of clues along the way as to where the story is leading, for those who are paying attention.
There are similar ideas here to Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. Both portray the surreal against the most placid of backgrounds, Suburbia. Both involve a young couple, where the man may be involved in something sinister that will eventually cause his wife’s undoing. If there’s one stylistic aspect I missed, it was that Rosemary had a continual sense of possibility right up to the end…you weren’t completely sure one way or the other if the lead character was delusional or if forces really were aligning against her. It’s much more obvious in Wives that something bizarre is occurring. The question is not if, but what.
Still, it’s an intriguing and certainly effective film, and one that gave us a new vocabulary term in "Stepford Wife". In some ways, it made one of the 70’s most powerful statements for Women’s Lib, but it did so through a sense of irony that may have taken some time to fully appreciate.
This 25 year old film is not without its share of problems. The overall color and look is a bit muted, as you might expect with an older movie. Darker scenes exhibit some grain and print problems such as marks and scratches, and don’t render with as much clarity as I would have liked. Lighter scenes fare much better, with more detail and crispness. Overall, not a bad effort, but it suffers a bit in comparison to some of the studio's better looking discs.
This is pretty much a typical mono soundtrack…neither good nor bad, but consistently clear and noise free, with occasional bits of dynamic range for punch. Dialogue is cleanly rendered throughout, as are the music and sound effects. Perfectly suitable.
The disc contains about a half hour of new interview footage with the cast and crew…very worthwhile. There is also a trailer, a couple of radio spots, and some talent bios.
The Stepford Wives succeeds as a chauvinistic fantasy brought to life with unsettling results. With a good cast and script and a wonderfully wicked sense of irony, this is one classic horror buffs will want to snap up. Just be sure to put the disc back where you found it when you’re through.