in , ,

The Mephisto Waltz

***
1971

‘…The Mephisto Waltz is sophisticated enough to be worth a revival from A24 or anyone seeking the road less travelled in terms of horror tropes…’

Also known under the far less stylish title Satan’s Transplant, The Mephisto Waltz is a glossy, strange entry in the 70’s demonology cycle; we’re some way between Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and we’re adapting a novel by Fred Mustard Stewart that TV producer Quinn Martin paid a cool quarter million dollars for in order to create his only cinematic venture. Martin booked in a starry cast, with Alan Alda and Curt Jurgens facing off as a journalist and a concert pianist who end up sharing the same body, but the central character is actually the one played by Jacqueline Bisset.

‘All that money has made you terribly attractive’ coos Paula Clarkson (Bisset) to her husband Myles (Alda) after he inherits a large sum of money and a Steinway piano from dying musical superstar Donald Ely (Jurgens). Ely is a passive aggressive character, disparaging of Myles’s lifestyle choices, and yet there’s method in his madness. The old man is dying, and by inviting Myles to get ’stoned on champagne’ at a series of wild parties at his LA mansion, Ely hopes to organise a Satanic body-swap that enables his soul to live on after death in the younger’s man’s body.

‘The devil can’t swim,’ offers Paula as she comes to recognise the dangerous influence Ely has on her husband; her gradual awakening is very much the spine of The Mephisto Waltz’s storyline. Myles retains his memories, and the only obvious change in his personality is that he drops his journalism to re-start his interest in being a professional concert pianist, as Ely requested. Meanwhile, the focus stays on Paula as she struggles to get her head around the Satanic influences buried beneath LA’s modern, hedonistic culture; Ely’s whacked-out party really is a psychedelic affair that would freak anyone out, and the masks that Ely’s daughter makes are pretty creepy too…

Horror usually dates quickly, but The Mephisto Waltz is sophisticated enough to be worth a revival from A24 or anyone seeking the road less travelled in terms of horror tropes; there is a sense of dread here, but it is worked out in a fairly articulate manner, and Bisset is a credible, empathetic lead that anchors the film with her grounded performance. It’s also notable that this is a film in which an innocent woman discovers the secrets that cabals of manipulative men create, although Ely’s daughter is no angel either. Alda also does a neat switch, moving adeptly from his popular ‘housewives choice’ persona to a rather colder, nastier evocation of Ely’s entitled Old European attitudes. Paul Wendkos’s film didn’t have the edge, or the grossness, that the more notorious demonology films did, mustering a wretched 8 reviews after 50 years on RT, but it’s a smart, engrossing thriller with a dark, killer ending that you probably won’t see coming; that’s usually what happens when you make a deal with the devil…

Comments

Leave a Reply
  1. Another Stewart/Stuart link??? His book was an instant hit with teen me. There was a heroine and she had to save herself. I seem to recall Ebert panned the movie, chiding ‘if magic was that easy…’ however, the book revealed a bit more and I always wondered where Fred got his necromancy info from. He was a failed Juliard pianist, midwest transplant that married a literary agent. Ebert should have remembered ‘imagination and intent’ is behind all magic. The protag, a well developed female character, was intent on revenge and satisfaction… The movie had a Euro flair in its attitude, and photography, odd angles, mirror shots was interesting. The blue liquid in the bottle always intrigued me. In dark magic, Uranus blue represents total focus on goal… I wouldn’t mind seeing this movie updated, demon not devil focus (though I understand the problem there–it’s harder to summon the right demon). While there’s lots of body jumping movies out there (Get Out, Belladonna, Self/less, and funny ones …), Mephisto is unapologetic, dark arts daring…

    • Yup, this feels more authentic than some of today’s takes on the dark arts…I don’t see why that book wouldn’t be worth a reworking, and the final set of twists really jumped out as being superior to the usual jump scares. And yes, there’s no explanation for the blue liquid, which is probably for the best. I read Ebert’s review, and while I see his point, I agree he gets it wrong. We see Bisset’s character making a deal, and although she gets what she wants, there’ll be a price to pay, there always is…

    • Not just any head, it’s William Shatner’s head. File under ‘human head on dog movies from the 70’s’ alongside Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

    • Agreed. Comedy seems tightly connected to the zeitgeist, but horror is too, perhaps to a lesser extent. The party is something to behold in this one…

Leave a Reply

Loading…

0