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The Stepford Wives (1975)

Something strange is happening in the town of Stepford.

Something strange is happening in the town of Stepford.

Directed by:

Bryan Forbes

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 115 minutes

US Certificate: PG UK Certificate: 15

On DVD

Country: United States

Everyone knows that a Stepford wife is a suburban woman who has dedicated her life almost robotically to serving her husband in the kitchen and in the bedroom. This is because 'The Stepford Wives' is one of very few films, along with Federico Fellini's 'La Dolce Vita', whose titles have entered the vernacular as much as the films themselves entered the public consciousness of their times. The best horror has always reflected contemporary anxieties, and 'The Stepford Wives' taps right into the battle between the sexes which was revolutionising the domestic landscape of 1970s America.

The Eberharts are leaving the excitement and confusion of their inner city New York life for the more basic values and old world charm of Stepford, Connecticut. Walter (Peter Masterson), who had instigated the move in the first place, quickly takes to the Stepford community and makes new friends in the local men's association, but his wife Joanna (Katharine Ross), who works for herself rather than for her husband and uses her maiden name professionally, misses the noise of the city and is uncomfortable in her new surroundings – until, that is, she meets Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), a fellow ex-Gothamite who shares her spirit of rebellion against suburban conformity. Together they try to start up a women's lib group to rival the men's association, only to find that the interests of the chillingly perfect local women do not extend beyond baking, floor polish, and the sexual satisfaction of their husbands. When Bobbie changes seemingly overnight, becoming as blankly subservient as the other Stepford wives, Joanna's indignation turns to hysteria and horror, as she tries to uncover the sinister secrets of the men's association before she too is turned into a Stepford wife.

Seamlessly merging smalltown conservatism and male chauvinism, 'The Stepford Wives' portrays a showroom community – familiar from the advertisements of the 1950s – where women are mere constructs of male fantasy. When it first appeared, the film was criticised for being a mouthpiece for the anti-feminist backlash in the 1970s – but in fact it clearly satirises its male characters as vain, narrow, unimaginative and insecure nerds, who fall far short of the picture-perfect standards that they apply to their wives, and whose self-serving ideals create a Disney-fied world marked only by blandness and sterility. Without ever resorting to special effects or graphic horror, 'The Stepford Wives' suffuses its sexual conflicts with just the sort of tension and paranoia that characterised the real gender politics of the seventies, before resolving itself in a satisfyingly creepy sci-fi conclusion.

Adapted by William Goldman (Hollywood screenwriter extraordinaire and author of the influential 'Adventures in the Screen Trade') from a novel by Ira Levin (who also wrote 'Rosemary's Baby', 'The Boys from Brazil'), 'The Stepford Wives' has a subtlety and dark wit which the recent Nicole Kidman remake can only fantasise about replicating.

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It's Got: A character called Raymond Chandler, the debut of Mary Stuart Masterson as the young daughter of Walter (who is played by the actress actual father, Peter Masterson), the line "she cooks as good as she looks", and lots of Easy-On floor polish.

It Needs: Er, not to be remade in 2004 with Nicole Kidman in the leading rôle and a script that steadfastly misses the point of the original. Doh!

DVD Extras Scene selection; Dolby digital 2.0; excellent featurette (17min) including interviews with all the main players, and insightful comments by director Bryan Forbes on the rude behaviour of screenwriter William Goldman; photo gallery; trailer. DVD Extras Rating: 5/10

Alternatives:

Dead & Buried, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children, The Stepford Husbands, The Stepford Wives, Westworld

Summary

In this effective sci-fi satire of the neanderthal sexual politics of 1970s middle America, the women keep serving only if they are kept serviced.

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