I’ve been writing a piece on the science fiction of Ira Levin for an upcoming book project. This led me to re-reading his amazing novel Rosemary’s Baby, which led to a re-watch of the 1968 film, which got me to thinking, why there seemed to be a preponderance of cinema in the late 1960s/early 1970s which involve supposedly ordinary women having witchcraft used against them or using it for empowerment.
Roman Polansky’s version of Rosemary’s Baby abides fairly closely to Levin’s book and I suspect regular readers of this site don’t need any introduction to how good the book and film are. Obviously, the story has a very strong feminist tone, as did a lot of Levin’s work. An innocent woman, Rosemary, has her young, fertile body quite literally sold to a group of Satanists who, unbeknownst to her, live in the same New York apartment block, by her husband, Guy, in return for success in his chosen profession as an actor.
What is really good about the film, and even better about the book, is the way Levin leaves a trail of small clues as to what is going on – that Satan has raped her and Guy, in league with the Satanists, is manipulating her to carry the child to full term – often seemingly inconsequential or coincidental details, just enough to move the plot forward, but which all add up to a horrifying, inescapable trap. Fifty years on, parts of this must now seem a bit obvious but you don’t have to extend yourself too much to think of the impact it must have had when it came out.
Two other films with similar themes I’ve watched recently, among the large body of Satanic/occult that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, are The Mephisto Waltz (1971) and Hungry Wives (1973).
I am pretty sure I caught the The Mephisto Waltz on late night TV in my early teens. I loved it, and still do. Alan Alda plays Myles Clarkson, who can’t cut it as a concert pianist and has to work as a music journalist. He gets a gig interviewing one of the world’s greatest pianists, Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens), exuding a kind of hip patrician cool in his tailored Nehru shirt, who is dying of cancer. They hit it off and become good friends. Myles’s wife, Paula (Jacqueline Bisset) doesn’t much take to Duncan and she can’t stand his daughter, Roxanne (Barbara Parkins).
Unbeknownst to Myles and Paula, their new best friends are Satanists who are engaged in an incestuous relationship. As Duncan’s physical body nears the end, father and daughter perform an occult ceremony to transfer Duncan’s consciousness into Myles’s body and vice versa. Duncan dies. Paula is perplexed by Myles’s sudden newfound abilities on the piano and enthusiasm in bed. But when the couple’s young daughter suddenly falls prey to a mysterious illness and dies, Paula does some digging. She discovers Duncan and Roxanne’s sexual relationship, realises what they have done to Myles, and that her life is in danger as the father, now her husband, and Roxanne, move to eliminate anyone who might have knowledge of what they have done.
Myles’s body may be inhabited by the consciousness of another man, but Paula still loves him, and in a strange way is excited by the situation, and, modern woman that she is, decides to take drastic action. This means going over Roxanne’s head, so to speak, to talk to her boss, Satan, who she summons in effectively low-key scene that gave me nightmares for weeks after I first saw it.
Based on the novel of the same name by Fred Mustard Stewart, the film is directed by Paul Wendkos, whose lengthy career included a number of Gidget films as well as the hard as nails 1957 film noir, The Burglar, and a lot of television. It was produced by veteran Quinn Martin, which is why it might exude a certain made for the small screen vibe. But there is some terrific stuff in it, including a very trippy party/dream sequence (obviously de rigueur for any occult film in this period, as Rosemary’s Baby, which this film was clearly inspired by, and Hungry Wives have them as well), some weird sexual subtexts and a stunning Jerry Goldsmith score. The actual occult ceremony that has to be undertaken to shift Duncan’s consciousness into Myles’s body is also highly imaginative. Plus, it has a housewife who, literally, will do whatever it takes to keep her husband, up to and include summoning the devil.
Hungry Wives was written and directed by George A. Romero, one of three films he made after Night of the Living Dead in 1968 (the others being There’s Always Vanilla in 1971 and The Crazies in 1973), that were not well received. Joan White is a bored housewife living in suburban Pittsburgh with her emotionally manipulative husband, Jack, a travelling salesman, and their rebellious 19-year-old daughter, Nikki. Her frustrations and fears are signalled by a completely Freudian dream she is having at the very beginning of the film, in which her husband is leading her around like a dog and even hands her over to another man to put in a kennel.
After trying various things, psychoanalysis, self-mediation with alcohol and pot, etc, Joan meets another wife who just happens to be the head of the local witch coven. One thing leads to another, and Joan heads into town, buys herself a book called How to be a Witch, and casts a spell on her daughter’s boyfriend (and college teacher, because it is the seventies), who becomes her lover.
Towards the film’s end she has another dream that she is attacked by a masked intruder. She shoots the intruder dead, an action which is really occurring in real life and the intruder is actually her husband (whether or not she knew what she was doing is left an open question, but the smart money is that she did). The police rule the shooting an accident and she fades back into suburban anonymity secure in her secret occult identity.
It is a marvellously downbeat film. It looks cheaply made (which is was), everything swathed in brown and beige, but the aesthetic works. The film originally appeared under the title Season of the Witch but was re-cut and the title changed so it could be marketed as soft core porn, and you can see how it sort of would’ve worked as that kind of film as well.
Where it really succeeds is in conveying the absolute anomie of the American suburban housewife experience at a time when half the country felt like it was turning on and discovering itself. It is also a wonderful illustration of how Satanism and witchcraft, among other alternative and countercultural influences, was seeping into the broader culture by the early 1970s.