Satire is often associated with comedic work, sometimes (quite understandably) confused with parody. On the average, when most folks think of satire, they think of shows like The Office or political skits from Saturday Night Live. By definition, however, satire ridicules the shortcomings of humanity by word or work, be it print, film, or otherwise, with the intent of bringing those shortcomings into the light to raise social awareness. A parody, on the other hand, merely intends to imitate for comedic entertainment. That in mind, satirical horror is certainly a viable medium; the vices of humanity can typically be counted on to be more selfish and vile than anything from the imaginations of a Poe, Lovecraft, King, Carpenter or Craven. Films like Natural Born Killers or Man Bites Dog are not generally considered horror, but the images and concepts contained in their scripts are as terrifying to me as any demon from hell or maniacal clown-monster…good horror, to paraphrase Dick Jones, is where you find it (kudos to those of you nerdy enough to get that reference!), and the depths of man’s own darkness holds terrors undreamt.
The Stepford Wives is a satirical observation of the Women’s Liberation Movement, in full swing at the time the source novel by Ira Levin was written (and when the film was made). Now I don’t mean that in the sense that it sought to ridicule the movement itself; instead, the derision was aimed at the dark side of the average man’s reaction to “liberated” women.
The Eberharts are leaving the hustle and bustle of New York City to move to the picturesque community of Stepford, and it’s clear from the get-go that Mrs. Eberhart, Joanna, isn’t particularly thrilled with the idea. She seems to love the city life, and wonders if living in such a quiet, still environment will completely squelch her photography dreams. Even more of an irritation to her is how quickly her husband takes up with the men of the community, even joining the local “Men’s Club”, where he spends a lot of his time (“It’s an honor to even be asked,” he tells her). Frustrated, she finds that she can make no connections with any of the women in town, either; each one she comes across is very…sterile. Now that doesn’t mean they’re unpleasant, oh no; they’re polite, perfectly groomed and dressed, and think of their cooking, cleaning and gardening as if they were holy missions.
However, a modern woman of 1975 can’t deal with this kind of “domestic bliss”, and Joanna is delighted when she finally meets Bobbie, another new resident to Stepford, who shares Joanna’s views on life, enjoyment of her individuality, and disdain for this little burg. Trying to find a social foothold of their own (partially to counter the very Draconian “Men’s Club”), the pair try to drum up a group meeting for women to support and strengthen one another, but it plunges right off the deep end into a discussion of cleaning products that would make any advertising executive piss himself with joy. Along with the oddness of the town’s females, Joanna begins to notice strange behavior in her husband as well; he’s often up late drinking after his club meetings, a kind of guilty melancholy hanging over him. All of this makes Joanna seriously consider getting the hell out of Stepford; the final straw comes when her one anchor, Bobbie, becomes homemaker of the year overnight, very uncharacteristically prim and proper. Frantically, Joanna begins to realize that something happens to the women of Stepford…and her turn is coming.
The film is very well-acted; from the blank pleasantries on the faces of the “wives” to the guilt-ridden angst of Joanna’s husband, the performances are what bring the real terror to this movie. Using deft camera work, shadow and suggestion, the director paints a tapestry of sinister underpinnings throughout the narrative that are never spoken, and not fully realized until the climax. Subtle hints lie throughout the film, but if you don’t know what’s going on when you start watching, you’ll likely miss out on these until the end, and then you’ll be like “Well I’ll be damned; I shoulda seen that coming!” I know of few films that do as good of a job hiding the horror in the normalcy of life; there’s no gore, no BOO! moments, just an underlying feeling that there’s more going on here than we know, and it ain’t good. There’s enough peppered into the script to assure you of this, yet it’s downplayed in the execution enough to catch you off guard. If you don’t find what’s scary in this movie, then you either aren’t paying attention, or you just may be one of the Stepford husbands (or worse yet, have their mentality!).
Again, it’s not in-your-face horror, and it’s a dated work, so a lot of modern viewers may be turned off by it; hey, that’s what makes the world go ’round. Whatever you do, don’t compare it with the hunk-of-ass comedy remake from a few years back. There’s simply no comparison; while there are a couple of things that will bring a smile to your face in the original, there’s really nothing funny about it.
If you’re interested in a flick that explores the darkness that could be behind everyday life, false smiles and forced “I love you”s, you should check this one out.