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UnbreakableTHE STEPFORD WIVES - 1975
USA Release: Feb. 12, 1975
Palomar Pictures International, Fadsin Cinema Associates, Columbia Pictures
Ratings: USA: PG

In his day, Horror writer, Ira Levin was more renown that Stephen King is today.

True, by virtue of being more prolific, King is unquestionably the better selling writer. It's just that Ira Levin had this coveted ability to plug into the culture's zeitgeist with nothing more than a title. His titles defined an entire descriptive phrase in a mere two or three words. He did it with ROSEMARY'S BABY ("Christ! Baby-sitting the Krendall's kid is like dealing with Rosemary's Baby!") and Ira did it with his novel, THE STEPFORD WIVES.

Chances are pretty good that even now, in 2019, the phrase STEPFORD WIVES illustrates a specific group of women in your mind, even if you never read the book or saw the movie.

Yes, Joseph Heller pulled it off one time with CATCH-22, but Ira did it repeatedly. And while THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL eventually faded from our Western culture's argot, THE STEPFORD WIVES may be here to stay.

That said, THE STEPFORD WIVES movie is fading away for good reason.

It begins with a move out of New York City. There's clear, cold friction between busy husband Walter Eberhart (Peter Masterson: IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, THE EXORCIST, MAN ON A SWING, WITCHFIRE) and wife Joanna (Katherine Ross: GAMES, THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS, THE SWARM, THE LEGACY, THE FINAL COUNTDOWN, WAIT UNTIL DARK, DONNIE DARKO).

While Walter needles over the last second details of their move, Joanna quietly sits in the station wagon with her daughters, staring out at an indifferent city. The kids notice a man crossing the street carrying an unclothed mannikin, its head covered in wrapping.

When Walter gets in, ready to drive, daughter Kim (Mary Stuart Masterson: FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, MAD AT THE MOON, HEAVEN'S PRISONERS, THE INSURGENTS, BLIND SPOT [TV]), tells him that she saw a man carrying a naked lady across the street.

Nonplussed, Walter responds, "Well, that's why we're moving to Stepford."

Joanna has preemptively decided that she won't like Stepford, Connecticut. She wanted to stay in New York City where she could become a famous photographer.

Except while Joanna likes to take photos, she's done nothing to gain attention for her photography.

Besides get married and have children, Joanna's never done anything with her life except watch opportunities pass her by like a blur of trees through the car window.

Walter is excited about Stepford and his new job. He's excited about the beautiful new house and property he's bought. The girls are getting into it all, but Joanna is upset because in the heart of her greatest opportunity, NYC, she pissed the years away, and now she's approaching middle age; will be far from her opportunity, and her future looks more out of her control than ever before.

Naturally Joanna takes her anger at herself out on her Walter.

He made the decision to take the job in Stepford without waiting for her decision.

He chose to move them all to Stepford without waiting for her input.

He made the decision to buy the house without waiting for her to make up her mind one way or the other.

Walter's response is that their family can't spend the rest of their lives waiting for Joanna to snap out of it and join their active lives.

At this stage we feel for Walter and feel nothing for Joanna, who seems to be selfishly lost in her own life and punishing everyone else for it.

Bear in mind, however, that THE STEPFORD WIVES was published in 1972 at the resurgence of feminism (like everything else in life, feminism has its own wave pattern throughout history).

While there was plenty of opportunity for women in 1972, they had to fight harder to achieve it than their male counterparts. It was the inertia of culture. There was a new (resurge) idea of Women's Liberation and, while the concept was heady, young women went through school being indoctrinated into thinking that they would be homemakers.

"We must! We must! We must improve our bust!"

To the generation the 1950s and 60s women birthed, old magazines and their ads, representative of the culture then, are appalling.

Weyenberg Massagic shoes
The "Good Old Days" when my Mom was a young housewife.
This ad wasn't the exception. This was passed off as Normal.

My Mother had to live through a social bombardment like that? No wonder she's so nuts!

A generation later, women born in the 1960s, growing up in the 1980s, and wanting to raise more enlightened sons, realized the impact such a Madison Avenue artifice had on their boys.

Women who had to live up to such ridiculous demands of subservience had a few demands of their own. Any man they married damn sure better be able to provide a good to great life for the family, regardless of his personal sacrifice. Men had to be superheroes 24/7. Which usually meant Daddy was busting ass at work all week, plus navigating or orchestrating the ever-shifting company politics to keep him in place, his job safe, and him out of the way of fall-out. His friends were his co-workers and his co-workers could not be trusted.

By the time he came home he had little energy to do more than collapse in front of the TV when he got home at night. If he lost his job over as little as one misstep or miscalculation, he entertained quiet thoughts of suicide strategy with a life insurance policy that would provide for his family.

Guys may be writing and singing petulant songs about women who only want men with money, but if you want a housewife whose life is entirely dependent upon you for her existence, you'd damn sure better be holding up your god damn end of the lousy bargain.

This is era of the book and movie.

Love's Baby Soft
This was Acceptable? WHAT. THE. HELL, Love Cosmetics?

Joanna wasn't content in New York City, either, but she always dreamed that one day she'd make it there.

No woman in Stepford seems to be making anything except cookies and casseroles. In fact, on the day the Eberharts move in, Carol Van Sant (Nanette Newman: FACES IN THE DARK, PIT OF DARKNESS, MURDER CAN BE DEADLY, JOURNEY INTO DARKNESS, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD), serene and slow as a well-fed cat, brings them a casserole as a housewarming gift.

With an ever increasing sense of dread, Joanna realizes that the neighborhood women are all a bunch of happy homemakers, And Nothing More. They have no inner life, no dreams, no aspirations, no plans for the future. They have no character or personality. They have no actual human problems. And they all talk like TV commercial actresses pitching cleaning products.

In short, they are a mirror of everything Joanna already is except one, they are happy about it.

When Joanna nearly stumbles across two other newcomers to Stepford, Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss: THE PARALLAX VIEW, SATURDAY THE 14th, I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE) and Charmaine Wimpiris (Tina Louise: LOOK WHAT'S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY, NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY, HELLRIDERS, EVILS OF THE NIGHT, LATE PHASES), she finally comes to a decision: she wants to start a feminist group.

TRIVIA

*
These are the words of the men who made this movie.

DISC EXTRAS

More interesting, should you get the Disc, is the backstory to it all.

It contains The Stepford Life (2001), interviews of the cast, producer, and director (William Goldman didn't participate).

Director Bryan Forbes hints at his delight at tormenting Goldman behind his back and actor Peter Masterson, who (unbeknownst to Forbes at the time) was Goldman's friend, as well as Producer Edgar J. Scherick (with a shrug), acknowledges this as well.

At one point in the interview, after plainly enjoying the memory of being such a thorn to Goldman, Bryan excuses his behavior when he notes that he caused William to reach a boiling point, where he lashed out by saying something unkind about Bryan's wife, Nanette. Bryan, who was 76 at the time of this interview, actually uses that as a retroactive justification for his preemptive skullduggery against an otherwise innocent man.

There are also interviews with Paula Prentiss, Katherine Ross, Tina Louise, and Nanette Newman.

To my delight, the women all have fond memories of befriending and bonding with each other, as they enjoyed the working vacation of the many month shoot of THE STEPFORD WIVES.

Against Western cultural stereotype, the women grew close while the men became a catty clique of backstabbers.

She doesn't want to be hard-core about it, because she can't envision the potential repercussions in her new community.*

Still, something has to be done about Stepford. She can't have her daughters growing up in a place where their future will be limited to fixating about the latest toilet cleanser and if their husband thinks they are pretty enough.

That's yet another odd thing about Stepford. All of the women are rather attractive - and certainly out of the league of their weak, dumpy, frumpy, comb-over husbands.

The only man in town who is out of step with that appearance is the well-coiffed and elegant Dale Coba (Patrick O'Neal: THE MAD MAGICIAN, CHAMBER OF HORRORS, SILENT NIGHT BLOODY NIGHT, FANTASIES, STUFF). Unlike the other men who project obvious false bravado or move through their lives practically cowering like lost kids looking for a leader, Dale is confident to the point of being sinister. His presence is intrusive and he often smiles when no one else is, as if he is enjoying a private joke at the expense of his hosts.

The other men all adore him and can't stop talking about his Men's Club. Walter can barely contain his enthusiasm about maybe joining it, and as he tells Joanna, she knows her husband well enough to know that he's already in.

Again, he makes the pretence of asking her opinion, but she knows he's already made the decision. He's making decisions about her life and not including her in it.

So while Joanna takes her anger and frustration out on Walter, she also knows she really has no one to blame but herself. She won't take charge of her own life.

Well that's all about to come to an end once she sees the sedate housepets that are the domesticated housewives of Stepford. Joanna is sufficiently cornered out by that looming future to start mobilizing the women of Stepford into opening their eyes to life. One that offers more than dish detergent.

Unfortunately, Joanna, Bobbie, and Charmaine soon realize that being an obedient servant to their husbands is the only thing the other wives of the neighborhood want, and they won't be moved from that.

Bobbie starts wondering if there is something in the water turning these women into soulless hausfraus.

When Charmaine disappears for a few days, then returns as a empty smiling Stepford wife, Joanna and Bobbie's suspicions explode into full blown paranoia.

Something's not right! We gotta test this water!

But are they right? Are the women being drugged?

Screenwriter William Goldman was already an accomplished bestselling novelist (MARATHON MAN, MAGIC) as well as a screenwriter (MISERY, THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS, DREAMCATCHER). He could also be maddening to Producers and Directors. Whenever Goldman wrote a screenplay on his own, the movie was invariably a hit, and when it wasn't, the critics rarely blamed Goldman's script.

Goldman knew he was more than merely capable when it came to writing. He repeatedly made the New York Times Best seller list and won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Also true to his nature, being a man hired by a man to write a screenplay about feminism based on a book also written by a man, William interviewed a number of prominent feminists of his era to get their take and feel for the characters he would write.

None of the women were exactly "pleased" that their movement would be filtered through a man, but they appreciated that William was at least sympathetic enough to reach out to them.

Unlike novels, movies remain a team effort. Goldman respectfully wrote THE STEPFORD WIVES true to Ira Levin's vision, as a dark satire and Horror story. The women's conversations with each other mirrored the way women of the movement talked, thought, and worked.

Yet Goldman was the writer. The Director is the storyteller.

Director Bryan Forbes was an actor, writer, and director whose only literary drive was in dramas, and here he excelled. Forbes didn't do Horror, he didn't like Horror, and whatever he did, he found a way to include his wife, Nanette Newman, in a prominent role.

So he made her one of the Stepford wives.

Ahem...

Except Levin and Goldman wrote the Stepford Wives as being impossibly beautiful, like an airbrushed Playboy Centerfold model.

Director Bryan loved his wife and found her quite attractive, no doubt, but didn't feel she could live up to that. Moreover, he certainly didn't want to see her in a revealing bikini or lingerie, so he made changes to Goldman's script.

Then, while he was at it, he also felt Levin's Science Fiction Horror novel and Goldman's Science Fiction Horror screenplay were much too Science Fiction Horror for his tastes.

Bryan knew Drama. The producer, Edgar J. Scherick (ONLY WAY OUT IS DEAD, TO KILL A CLOWN, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, THE STEPFORD WIVES [all], SLEUTH, BLACK DEATH, NIGHTMARE IN THE DAYLIGHT), knew he was hiring a drama man. Why not stick with his strengths?

For a movie coming off a hot streak best selling novel that was still a best seller when the movie was released, and in the midst of a mid-1970s feminist wave, THE STEPFORD WIVES tanked and tanked badly.

The movie features an awful lot of just walking around as Joanna takes everything in. Joanna staring off into space as she, no doubt, contemplates her life.

Come the halfway mark, the movie remains as undecided as the character of Joanna herself. It's only in the final 20 or so minutes that the terror that should be THE STEPFORD WIVES finally rears up, and even that, along with Dick Smith's masterful Special Effects make-up (for which he was uncredited) is reigned in.

Small wonder that the feminists of the period who loved Ira Levin's novel, who pointed at it shouting "This! This! This!" despised Bryan Forbes' movie - though Bryan went to his grave never understanding why.

Outside of the director, everyone from the actors to the Production Designers to the hairdressers and costume designers that captured that disquieting Stepford Wife look, brought their A-Game.

Shame that Bryan let them down and producer Scherick merely shrugged off the loss for the rest of his life.

I give THE STEPFORD WIVES a barely earned three Shriek Girls.

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
This review copyright 2000 E.C.McMullen Jr.

Unbreakable (2000) on IMDb
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