Kino Lorber, along with 20th Century-Fox, has released on Blu-ray THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, the 1971 Satanic occult thriller from Fox and TV producer Quinn Martin, based on author Fred Mustard Stewart’s bestselling paperback, directed by Paul Wendkos, scripted by Ben Maddow, scored (sensationally) by Jerry Goldsmith, and starring Alan Alda, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Parkins, Curt Jurgens, Bradford Dillman, William Windom, Kathleen Widdoes, Pamelyn Ferdin, Antoinette Bower, and Tim the dog. An unapologetic, cheapjack knock-off of ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE MEPHISTO WALTZ stiffed in theaters and met with hostile critics, but went on to gain a tiny cult following from infrequent reruns on TV—not too surprising, considering the TV talent behind the lens (the dog with the human head is responsible for about 90% of it). Fans of television’s golden age of made-for-TV movies will be the best fit for this slight-but-watchable outing. In addition to a bright, sparkling 1920 x 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced transfer, KL has added not one but two commentary tracks for fans, along with some vintage trailers.
Failed pianist-turned-“musical journalist” Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda, THE MOONSHINE WAR, TO KILL A CLOWN) gets the gig of a lifetime for a bottom feeder like himself: an appointment to interview the greatest pianist the world has ever known, Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens, KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME). The imperious Ely is immediately (and improbably) taken with Myles’ hands, and soon he, his slinky, horny daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, ASYLUM) and their passel of wastrel Eurotrash friends descend on Myles and his insanely, impossibly attractive wife, Paula (insanely, impossibly attractive Jacqueline Bisset, CASINO ROYALE, THE DEEP), intent on making Myles one of their own. Superficial Myles is all for it, essentially ditching his wife for Duncan and Roxanne, but Paula finds the lot of them distasteful in the extreme, particularly after she sees Duncan making out with his daughter Roxanne at a wild New Year’s Eve party. Myles thinks Paula’s jealous, but when he’s unwittingly lead into giving blood to Duncan, who’s dying of leukemia, Myles suddenly becomes the host body for dead Duncan’s soul, after a surprisingly little amount of Satanic witchery mumbo-jumbo from Roxanne. Now, the reprobate Duncan lives on in Myles’ body, and frankly, the unaware Paula loves it: lots of money (willed to “Myles” from Duncan’s estate), and lots of forceful, naughty sex that she clearly wasn’t getting from girly Myles. However, when Paula dreams that Duncan fulfills the last part of the Devil’s bargain—the killing of Paula’s and Myles’ daughter, Abby (Pamelyn Ferdin, THE CHRISTINE JORGENSEN STORY, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS)—followed by Abby’s real demise, Paula finally begins to suspect something is flukey with Myles, confirmed by the suspicious death of instant extramarital boyfriend Bill DeLancey (Bradford Dillman, PIRHANA, THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY), the ex-husband of Roxanne.
It’s no big stretch to conclude that THE MEPHISTO WALTZ unashamedly apes ROSEMARY’S BABY’s basic narrative framework, particularly when novelist Fred Mustard Stewart openly stated he was trying to recreate BABY author Ira Levin’s successful formula of a young wife unwittingly drawn into witchcraft and Satanism through the backstabbing acts of a weasely husband. And certainly 20th Century-Fox couldn’t be faulted for doing what every movie studio does: look at what’s a hit with audiences and try and copy it. Fox was in more financial trouble in 1968, when TV producer Quinn Martin initially brought them THE MEPHISTO WALTZ project, than they were in 1971 when it was finally released, but the studio still needed quick-fix titles to stem their cash flow problem. Several people on the commentary tracks here mention Fox’s dire financial problems that supposedly led to acquiring THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, without explaining them. Fox’s mid-1960s financial troubles began with horrifically expensive musical misfires like DOCTOR DOLITTLE, STAR!, and HELLO, DOLLY!, in their effort to replicate their own massive THE SOUND OF MUSIC success. Fox had some big, big hits during THE MEPHISTO WALTZ’s gestation and release–BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, M*A*S*H, PATTON, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, VANISHING POINT, THE FRENCH CONNECTION–they just didn’t have enough of them to offset all the pricey dogs like THE CHAIRMAN, STAIRCASE, JOHN AND MARY, THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN, THE KREMLIN LETTER, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE, and TORA! TORA! TORA!, as well as almost everything else that Fox released that failed...like THE MEPHISTO WALTZ).
So a cheap occult knock-off of a big box office hit like ROSEMARY’S BABY would obviously attract Fox at the time, particularly when they factored in the cost-savings of having proven TV talent behind the camera (highly successful producer Quinn Martin of THE FUGITIVE and THE FBI fame, and well-respected Paul Wendkos, director of the brilliant made-for-TV movie THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN, knew how to shoot cheap and fast), as well as second string talent in front of the lens. Gorgeous Bisset (who gives the only decent performance in the movie) was years from her breakout hit, THE DEEP, while TV actress Parkins (trying to act perverted and smoldering...but coming off like she’s concentrating very hard on remembering her next line) had failed to capitalize on her huge Fox hit, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Broadway and TV actor Alda is THE MEPHISTO WALTZ’s biggest drawback. Coming off two theatrical bombs–PAPER LION and the disastrous THE EXTRAORDINARY SEAMAN–you can tell he wants to be anywhere but on the set of a horror movie. Smarmily superficial and obnoxious as only Alda can be, he’s perfectly cast as a loser who’s besotted with sudden acceptance by the Satanic jet set (would anyone in their right mind cheat on Bisset?), but woefully, even laughably miscast as a possessed demonic lover that supposedly inspires Bisset to sell her soul just to sleep with him one more time (really?) . Unfortunately, it’s all too obvious with THE MEPHISTO WALTZ that “TV talent” helped turn a potentially pulpy, punchy theatrical feature, into a big-screen made-for-TV movie.
Everything in THE MEPHISTO WALTZ screams “early 1970s television,” from its unimaginative production design and insistent “talking heads” blocking, to its built-in pauses for commercials and station identifications...and worst of all, its pulled punches in terms of thrills. Since it’s accepted from multiple sources that quite a bit of material was jettisoned by producer Martin from director Wendkos’ first cut, it’s more problematic to finger who is to blame for THE MEPHISTO WALTZ’s choppy narrative: scripter, or producer with a pair of scissors. Stuff just...happens in THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, with that TV expositional abruptness and convenience that spells cost-cutting expedience, such as Bisset’s business partner Kathleen Widdoes suddenly remembering out of the blue—as she hilariously looks right at us—that Jurgen’s wife was killed by a dog (thanks for that important plot point, Kathy!). Or a supposedly distraught Bisset suddenly wishing for an affair with stranger Dillman (we don’t even get a hint she’s doing it to pay back cheating Alda—frankly, we don’t know why the hell she’s attempting it). The most bizarre example is Ferdin’s ghostly character: are we even told at the beginning of the movie that she’s their daughter? She has one short scene at the very beginning of the movie where she answers the phone, referring to her parents by their first names, before she completely disappears—I thought maybe she was a neighbor kid or something until she popped back in 45 minutes later calling Bisset “mommy.” Her death isn’t even shown onscreen (granted, some Ferdin scenes were cut, but according to Ferdin, her death scene was never shot). How are we supposed to buy Bisset’s grief over her dead daughter—a crucial plot point–when she’s in the movie for all of about 3 minutes? THE MEPHISTO WALTZ seems made to have commercial interruptions–not just to sell soap, but to paste over the big jumps in the spotty script (I changed my mind: the dumbest bit is the murder of Dillman—if Alda and the Satanists went to all the trouble of going to Dillman’s beach house, why didn’t they just kill Bisset?).
Regrettably, a network television vibe permeates THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, which is fine if you missed last week’s ABC TUESDAY MOVIE OF THE WEEK, but disappointing if you’re looking for some R-rated Satanic chills and thrills. An incest subplot and some brief, relatively rare Bisset nudity (proof there’s a God), as well as some relatively common Parkins nudity (she was always getting her kit off) sets THE MEPHISTO WALTZ apart from a contemporary MTV like Spielberg’s SOMETHING EVIL. However, a serious lack of violence and gore and just plain scares makes THE MEPHISTO WALTZ seem like an Italian giallo with its heart cut out (that R-rating has to come solely from that full-frontal nude woman at the party: otherwise, it’s a hard “GP,” at best). Even the actual witchcraft spookums prove to be woefully prosaic: just a bit of that blue goo, some heebee –jeebee words and a plaster face mask, and you can switch bodies? That’s how they’re going to freak us out? All we get are Wendkos’ overworked rotating camera angles and stolen Roger Corman dream sequences, laced (thankfully) with composer Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderfully evocative, creepy score (along with Bisset, the only element of real note here). Once we know what the deal is—and we sure know quicker than Bisset, since Wendkos shows us Alda’s transformation with desultory directness—THE MEPHISTO WALTZ basically becomes a BARNABY JONES episode (“A QM production!”) with Satan as “tonight’s special guest star,” a murder mystery with a clichéd TV “freeze frame” ending that isn’t particularly ambiguous or mystifying...or worst of all, scary.
KL’s 1920 x 1080p MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced Blu transfer of THE MEPHISTO WALTZ looks vastly improved over the previous "Midnite Movie" standard release. Fine image detail is notable (even in a quintessential 1970s soft-focus, star filtered, Vaseline-smeared-shot movie like this one), while colors are subtly varied and correct. Blacks are damn near absolute, while grain is relatively tight and filmic. Very nice. The Dolby Digital MA 1.0 English language track may not be terribly exciting in terms of recreating Goldsmith’s remarkable score, but it’s super-clean and re-recorded at a healthy level. English subtitles are available.
Extras include two commentary tracks. First, film historian Bill Cooke does a good job of filling us in on the scenes that are missing from THE MEPHISTO WALTZ’s first cut...and a lousy job of going off into excruciatingly trivial minutia (who the hell cares how many bedrooms there are in “stately Wayne Manor?”). Way too much info on tangents (the original book and its author) instead of the movie, before Cooke turns performer and does a cringe-worthy reading from Jurgen’s autobiography (I’m genuinely curious of how this stuff gets onto a disc?). Actress Ferdin is on hand for a second audio commentary, moderated by Elijah Drenner, which at least focuses on THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, for the most part. I found Ferdin’s description of Hollywood at that point in 1970 (the new pushing out the old, and the resulting tension), and the details of her on-set schooling, absolutely fascinating. She was a veteran, and she was there, so her insights are invaluable (she also has some good reads on what might have been going on behind the scenes of the production). Original trailers for THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, BURNT OFFERINGS, DERANGED, and JENNIFER round out the extras. (Paul Mavis)
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