The Mephisto Waltz: An underrated doozy of a horror film

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The Mephisto Waltz directed by Paul Wendkos horror film reviewsThe Mephisto Waltz directed by Paul Wendkos

Featuring a compelling story line that conflates both transmigration and Satanic elements, a truly winning cast of attractive pros, expert direction and handsome production values, The Mephisto Waltz would be expected to have a greater popular renown; a horror film that should be more highly regarded than seems to be the case. I have seen it four times since its release in April 1971, and each time am impressed anew at what a literate and gripping horror gem it is. Hardly just a retread cousin of 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, although surely in debt to that Polanski masterpiece, the film, I feel, can proudly stand as one of the finest horror outings of the early ‘70s.

In the film, we meet a very attractive and likable couple, the Clarksons. Myles (played by Alan Alda, here just 18 months away from his 11-year run on TV’s M*A*S*H) is a former pianist who now works as a musical journalist, while Paula (scrumptious Jacqueline Bisset) runs an antique and oddities shop near their L.A. home. When we first encounter the pair, Myles is overjoyed to learn that he has just landed an interview with the world’s foremost classical pianist, Duncan Ely (imposingly played by German actor Curt Jurgens). At their initial meeting in Ely’s palatial mansion, Ely is so impressed with Myles’ hands, and his talented-amateur playing abilities, that he cannot resist showing him off to his daughter, Roxanne (beautiful Barbara Parkins, who many viewers will recall from the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, and who older baby boomers may remember from her role as “bad girl” Betty Anderson on TV’s first prime-time soap opera, Peyton Place, in which she played opposite future Rosemary Woodhouse herself, Mia Farrow). Ely — who ,is dying of leukemia, as it turns out — and his daughter latch themselves onto the Clarksons, to Myles’ delight and Paula’s increasing suspicion and discomfort. And as it happens, Paula has good reason to feel worried. What the Clarksons don’t realize is that Duncan and Roxanne are Satanists — and incestuous lovers, to boot — and that Roxanne has the spells, the book, the masks, the ointment AND the Satanic contacts needed to place her dying father’s soul into Myles’ young body! And before long, Paula has even more cause for concern, as Myles’ personality undergoes a drastic change, and his abilities at the piano start to develop at an alarming rate…

As in Rosemary’s Baby, The Mephisto Waltz features a young wife whose husband has become compromised by his association with a Satanic couple; in both films, that Satanic couple is initially seen as both innocuous and actually helpful; and in both films, the young wife gradually grows aware of the diabolic doings around her. The two films also share a decidedly trippy dream sequence, scenes in a doctor’s office (the 1971 film features a doc played by William Windom, a far less sinister doctor than that played in Rosemary’s Baby by Ralph Bellamy), several diabolic slayings, an ever-increasing quotient of paranoia, and an ending that can be seen as either upbeat or downbeat, depending on the viewer’s perspective. The Polanski film is clearly the superior of the two — indeed, it is one of the finest and classiest horror outings ever made — but the latter film can still hold its head high next to its older, bigger brother.

Stunningly directed with a remarkable amount of style by Paul Wendkos, Mephisto is consistently “freaky” throughout… perhaps even more so than Rosemary’s Baby. Wendkos, utilizing a constantly probing/revolving camera, unusual shooting angles, fish-eye lenses, smeared lenses, and reflected images in mirrors and other surfaces (such as Bisset seen simultaneously in a grandfather clock’s pendulum and glass door), manages to engender a truly disorienting atmosphere. The film also dishes out several scenes — a psychedelic New Year’s Eve party, that dream sequence, and the soul-transfer scene itself — that must have hugely appealed to the lysergically enhanced members of the theatrical audiences back when, to say the least! The use of bizarre background music — at times, almost coming off as musique concrete — only enhances the macabre goings-on on screen.

The picture showcases some sumptuous sets (most especially in Duncan’s home), and every one of the actors is excellent, especially — and perhaps surprisingly — Bisset, who manages to steal the film away from her fellows. Astonishingly gorgeous, she gives a highly convincing, intelligent, gutsy performance here, and really lets us feel the escalating paranoia that her character experiences. (The fact that Paula is twice mentioned as wearing Shalimar perfume only makes me like her more; that scent has always had a strange biochemical effect on me!) This viewer is an admitted sucker for the old mind/body switcheroo story line — I’ve long been a defender of the much-reviled final episode of Star Trek, the one entitled “Turnabout Intruder,” in which the spirit of Dr. Janice Lester takes over the body of Capt. Kirk — and the one on display in The Mephisto Waltz, with its Satanic underpinnings, is a doozy.

A classy horror outing in every way, the film holds up marvelously well, now 45 years later, and is surely ripe for reappraisal. And really, the scene in which Paula squares off against Robin, the demon dog from Hell, is worth the price of admission alone…

Watch trailer.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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