Friday, November 30, 2012

Mephisto Waltz, The (1971)

... aka: Satan, mon Amour! (Satan, My Love)
... aka: Satan's Transplant

Directed by:
Paul Wendkos

After a four year stint at Julliard, Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) gave up his love for piano playing after getting scathing reviews for a make-it-or-break-it performance. Now a music journalist, Myles has been called to the home of Duncan Ely (Curd Jürgens), the self-proclaimed "greatest pianist alive," to write an article on him. A crotchety, eccentric and mysterious type, Duncan initially seems most interested in Myles' hands. He even wants his sultry daughter Roxanne (the very sexy Barbara Parkins) to see them. Such fine hands. One in a hundred thousand. It isn't long before Myles and his wife Paula (Jacqueline Bisset) are hobnobbing with rich and famous sorts - writers, film directors... - at one of Duncan's lavish dinner parties. Duncan even has Myles perform dueling pianos with him. Sensing something is a little off about the whole situation, and also sensing Roxanne has eyes for her husband, Paula decides to call it a night. Before she goes, she's introduced to Duncan's snarling, vicious dog. Later, she'll learn that Duncan's previous wife was killed by one such dog. Maybe even that one...

At the grand opening of Paula's new antique store - which she owns with her friend Maggie (Kathleen Widdoes) - she gets a surprise visit by Duncan, Roxanne and all of their rich friends, who start throwing down tons of money on ridiculous things. Paula grows even more skeptical about them, begins to wonder what their intentions are and just why they're trying to "study" both her and her husband. At a New Year's Eve party at Duncan's, where everyone dresses in animal masks (aside from the dog - who wears a human mask!), Roxanne continues to flirt with her husband and Paula even spots Duncan and Roxanne - who are supposedly father and daughter - making out. She tries to sever ties with them, but Myles isn't having it. Duncan has become like a father figure to him and even confesses he's dying from leukemia. Paula tries to be understanding despite her reservations, but her suspicions continue to grow the more time Myles starts spending with them.

After donating some blood to the cause, Myles comes back to Paula with news that Duncan has passed away. Myles has also come back to his wife a completely different man. That's because his body is now inhabited by Duncan, who - through black magic - has managed to take over Myles' body to extend his own life. And he's not the only one doing it. His whole circle of friends do as well. Use up a body? Just find a new one. No longer so polite and meek, Myles now is picking up right where Duncan left off. Paula is happy at first. Her husband has a renewed passion for her and has inherited a healthy sum of money. However, it isn't long before Paula starts to realize that her husband isn't her husband at all. She must get to the bottom of things, especially after her young daughter Abby (Pamelyn Ferdin) dies from a mysterious illness that seems to be connected to what's going on.

This is a very good major studio (20th Century Fox) horror film. It's a well-made, well-paced, sometimes creepy film that boasts glossy production values, an intriguing storyline and a good cast. The direction and cinematography are both quite stylish: in particular during the dream sequences, which utilize soft-focus, smeared lenses and glimmering light to give them an other-worldly feel. If there's a weak link on the roster, it's a miscast Alda, who isn't fully convincing in his role. Not that he's awful or anything, but one gets the impression a more skilled actor would do a better job separating the Myles and Duncan personas (which nice guy Alda never quite pulls off). Thankfully, it's not all that important. Though billed behind him, this is actually the beautiful Bisset's film and the movie is really about her quest to uncover the truth. The actress makes a fine, likeable centerpiece for all the action. Parkins and Jürgens also give great performances and head up a fine supporting cast, which also includes the busy Bradford Dillman as Roxanne's ex-husband, William Windom as a doctor, Lilyan Chauvin (Mother Superior in SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT), Berry Kroeger (NIGHTMARE IN WAX) and Terrence Scammell.

I'm not saying this set the precedent or created such things, but it's hard to watch and not think about films that came after that utilized some of the same exact elements / imagery. For instance, the demon dog (1976's THE OMEN), the celebration of strange animal-masked guests (1973's THE WICKER MAN), the dog with the human face (1978's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) and so forth. Mephisto itself recalls ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) at times in that the husband's ego and gullibility puts him in a dangerous situation with occultists while the wife is the rightfully cautious of the two who senses something is awry.

The title comes from the Franz Liszt composition of the same name. It's based on a novel by Fred Mustard Stewart (adapted by Ben Maddow). Jerry Goldsmith did the score.



angelman66 said...

Just watched this and really enjoyed it - so I bought the dvd! Enjoyed your comprehensive essay on this solid horror film!

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Thank you. I also bought this after watching it the first time.

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