The Mephisto Waltz (1971) – By Roger Carpenter

 

By the early 1970’s the occult was all the craze. Television shows like Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and the Kolchak movies were popular and most bookstores had a section of occult items. Films were no different, with the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 revitalizing devil-worshipping at the theater. As with any popular film, studios rushed to capitalize on Polanski’s hit thriller. Some did well (The Exorcist). Some did not (The Mephisto Waltz).

Shortly after the release of Rosemary’s Baby budding novelist Fred Mustard Stewart conscripted the idea of the Devil disrupting a young family’s life for his first book, entitled The Mephisto Waltz. Himself a failed Juilliard-trained pianist turned writer, the book followed Myles Clarkson, also a failed Juilliard-trained pianist turned musical journalist who scores a 30-minute interview with the world’s leading pianist, Duncan Ely. It is during this interview that Ely, an extremely talented but aging musician, recognizes the undercurrent of talent in Myles. While Myles interviews Duncan, what Myles doesn’t understand is that Duncan is putting him through somewhat of an interview himself.

Duncan and his daughter Roxanne quickly insinuate themselves into the lives of the Clarkson Family. And while Myles is smitten by Roxanne and thrilled with his newly-burgeoning talent, his wife Paula gets the feeling that things are not as they seem. Roxanne reveals to Myles that Duncan is dying and Myles readily agrees to a blood transfusion for his newfound friend and mentor. However, everyone must die, and Duncan is no different. After he passes away, Paula Clarkson continues to notice strange events. Her husband treats her differently, seeming to forget their special way for communicating their love for one another and he makes love to his wife differently. But when their young daughter dies of a mysterious illness, Paula starts investigating Duncan and his daughter more intensively. What she discovers threatens her sanity as well as her life.

The Mephisto Waltz did not do well at the box office. The majority of critics dismissed it as a bad imitation of Polanski’s earlier devil-worshipping thriller. While this was accurate—both author and director have admitted as much—there were, perhaps other problems as well. Neither Alan Alda nor Jacqueline Bisset think much of the film and tensions were high during filming thanks to director Paul Wendkos’ demanding temperament on-set. The studio also couldn’t figure out how to sell the film, retitling it in some areas of the U.S. Presumably, the title The Mephisto Waltz was too high-brow for southern audiences….

Shameless copycatting aside, there is much to like about the film. A pre-M*A*S*H Alda has an admirable turn as the schmuck who can’t see the obvious, to his detriment while a young and incredibly gorgeous Jacqueline Bisset plays the sometimes hysterical and always suspicious wife and protector of the family. German actor Curt Jurgens as Satan-worshipping Duncan Ely and screen vet Barbara Parkins as Duncan’s evil daughter Roxanne both exude an aristocratic arrogance that Paula Clarkson innately understands while her husband is blinded by the attention the pair give him. Parkins as Roxanne is steamy and sultry as she worms her way into Myles’ affections even as she cooly rebuffs Paula’s not-so-subtle jabs. Veteran character actor Bradford Dillman and popular child actor Pamelyn Ferdin round out the cast. Both have small yet important roles for the story and contribute capably.

But the real strengths of the film are on the technical side. It is well-documented that director Wendkos was difficult to work with on this picture. But for all that, he was able to create a highly stylized film that some critics now praise as at least equal to Rosemary’s Baby. Lensed by veteran television cameraman William W. Spencer, the film contains many beautiful scenes. Using several different camera lenses and optical effects, Spencer and Wendkos create many strong visuals, particularly during a hallucinatory and lascivious New Year’s party as well as during several surreal dream sequences. One particular scene, when Duncan enters young Abby Clarkson’s room, is a study in color design and reminded this viewer of Mario Bava’s work. Another high point that must be recognized is Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderfully unique, bizarre, and incredibly atmospheric musical score. Creator of the wildly exciting score to Plant of the Apes as well as the biographical blockbuster Patton, this is some of Goldsmith’s most inventive work. Goldsmith uses stringed instruments and many other sound effects to create an atmosphere of dread throughout the picture. It is subtle and most viewers won’t even be aware of the score, but it contributes mightily to the eeriness of the picture.

So what does a young wife do when she realizes the aristocracy is using Satan Himself against her family? She’s already lost her daughter and it seems she has lost her husband as well. The choices she makes run counter to the standard devil-worshipping material in book and in film and provides a bit of a surprise to the jaded movie-goer. Perhaps these choices—and the ending which is left open to interpretation—also contributed to poor box office. After all, most Americans like their endings wrapped up with a big, bright bow. I, for one, was impressed with the ending. Is Paula choosing to become more deeply involved for revenge or does she simply love Myles so much she is willing to risk her life as well as her soul to be with him? I’m sure the ending left some viewers confounded and others frustrated, but I liked it very much.

This Blu-ray release from Kino-Lorber looks nice, with a clear picture and bright colors. It has not been remastered and there is at least one scene that has a green line that runs vertically across the frame for a few seconds, but generally speaking, the film looks terrific. There isn’t much in the way of interviews, either archival or new, but there are two excellent commentaries. The first commentary is by film historian and Video Watchdog contributor Bill Cooke. He has researched the film and is well-prepared for the commentary. It is interesting and informative. The second commentary is with Pamelyn Ferdin who played the Clarskson daughter who is sacrificed to Satan. Eleven years of age at the time of production, she still has very clear recollections of her time on set as well as many memories of the cast and crew. The commentary veers off topic a bit towards the end as Ferdin speaks about other films she starred in during this same period as well her animal rights activism, but she is upbeat and volunteers some good information. The only other feature is a theatrical trailer for the film as well as other horror/thrillers of the time.

The Mephisto Waltz is an underrated film which I hope receives some long-overdue love with this latest release from Kino-Lorber. The film is out now and can be purchased from Amazon or you can go directly to Kino Lorber’s site at kinolorber.com.