The Mephisto Waltz Review
An opportunity to interview the notoriously reclusive pianist Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens) seems like just the break struggling writer Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) needs, but Ely takes to Myles, who himself at one time had musical aspirations, in an unexpectedly enthusiastic manner. Much to the annoyance of Myles' wife Paula (Jacqueline Bisset), Ely and his glacial daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins) invade the lives of the Clarksons, seeming to be just a little too friendly. Ely succumbs to lukaemia, leaving a hefty sum of money and all of his musical assets to Myles, but Paula, sensing a change in her husband's personality, grows suspicious that he has inherited something else as well...
I first caught The Mephisto Waltz late at night on television, back in days gone by when I was an impressionable little delinquent. As one of the first horror movies I ever saw, it left quite an impression on me and, for several years afterwards, memories of my nocturnal encounter caused me to place the title high on my list of films in desperate need of a DVD release. Time, of course, has a habit of exaggerating the positive aspects of an enjoyable experience, so it is unsurprising that, when I finally caught up with the film again last year, via a VHS dupe, I found that it fell short of my expectations. It remains an enjoyable piece of occult hokum, but, far from being anything special, it is simply a single example of the multitude of Satanic-themed horror films released during the early 1970s, riding on the coat-tails of the success of more substantial fare like Rosemary's Baby.
The source material is a novel of the same name by Fred Mustard Stewart, a pulpy but enjoyable (not to mention brief) read that does a commendable job of conveying its protagonist's growing fear and paranoia. The script, by Ben Maddow, who doesn't seem to have written anything worthwhile between 1971 and his death in 1992, is faithful to the source but a rather plodding and conventional affair. At 104 minutes the film feels long, and this is not because the subject matter is uninteresting but rather because Maddow and director Paul Wendkos, who, barring this film, worked almost exclusively in television, don't seem to have any sense of pacing. It takes too long to get going, with the meandering prelude revealing nothing worthwhile about the characters beyond highlighting the close and intensely physical relationship between Myles and Paula. The script is also hampered by a number of lapses in logic, the most blatant of which is one character's almost indifferent reaction to the death of a loved one. Beyond that, though, Paula takes a frustratingly long time to work out that her husband is not himself, which serves only to make her look rather stupid.
Once it gets going, though, the film is an enjoyable enough ride. The script manages to combine the mounting paranoia of Rosemary's Baby with more conventional popcorn entertainment, and Jacqueline Bisset makes for an attractive and engaging heroine once her character finally decides to do something. The top-billed Alan Alda is bland and ineffectual, and doesn't really manage to do anything to add nuance or depth to his character's sudden change of personality, but this is really Bisset's film anyway, and Alda ends up being sidelined for a good portion of its running time. Wendkos' direction is, for the most part, merely functional, with the rather flat lighting and Californian coastal locations (changed from the book, which took place in New York) evoking the atmosphere of early 70s American television rather than cinema. Where the film comes alive is in the various dream sequences and other moments of Satanic horror. Here, Wendkos goes all out with rich primary colours, high and low camera angles, and fish-eye lenses, which are far from subtle but do create a palpable air of dread.
There's nothing particularly unique about The Mephisto Waltz that can't be found in the countless other Rosemary's Baby-inspired horror films from the same period. Then again, the book itself was unremarkable despite being an enjoyable pulpy read, so it's difficult to feel too surprised that the film turned out to be equally pedestrian. It's an enjoyable enough way to kill a couple of hours, though, especially on a cold winter's night, and that inimitable air of 70s kitsch makes it considerably more appealing than most of its more recent ilk.
20th Century Fox have released The Mephisto Waltz in various European countries, under the title of Satan Mon Amour. The disc is fully English-friendly, right down to its menus, although it doesn't seem to have been released in the UK. The Spanish disc, reviewed here, can be acquired from DVDGo, for a mere €7.19. It carries a rather unwarranted "18" certificate, which seems to be due to the thematic material and some brief nudity rather than because it's particularly gruesome.
These days, it's fairly easy to make an educated guess as to how one of Fox's catalogue releases will look: somewhat soft and noise reduced, but reasonably filmlike and certainly not unpleasant to watch. The Mephisto Waltz's transfer generally looks smooth and natural without being particularly remarkable. Edge enhancement is nowhere to be seen, although I did find the colours to be less saturated than I had expected; then again, this may be the result of becoming used to an overly pumped VHS dupe. Having only ever seen the film on analogue television and then on video, both in composition-destroying open matte fullscreen, it's tempting to call this DVD a revelation, but that would perhaps be overstating the case somewhat.
The audio is dual-channel mono - nothing fancy, but a faithful representation of its original mix. Clarity is largely excellent, and Jerry Goldsmith's tense score, replete with overwrought string arrangements, sounds suitably imposing despite its monaural limitations. Subtitles are provided in English, Spanish, German and Swedish, while Spanish and German (also mono) dubs are also available.
The sole extra is the film's theatrical trailer, presented in murky non-anamorphic widescreen.
Fox's treatement of what is, admittedly, a fairly obscure title unlikely to attract much interest is commendable, even if the release is essentially bare-bones. This title may appeal to me more for its nostalgic value than because it's a particularly great film, but it's nice to see it finally getting a DVD release in its correct aspect ratio.
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