Saturday, October 30, 2010

'The Mephisto Waltz' oozes 1970s horror

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)
Starring: Jacqueline Bisset, Alan Alda, Barbara Parkins, Bradford Dillman, and Curt Jurgens
Director: Paul Wendkos
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A dying pianist (Curt Jurgins) makes a bargain with Satan to have his soul put into a younger man's body (Alan Alda). The younger man's wife (Jacqueline Bissett) realizes slowly something is different about her husband... and realizes something is seriously wrong people around them start dying mysterously.

"The Mephisto Waltz" is an unsettling little horror film from the 1970s (and it oozes '70s sensibilities from every frame, along with an unsettling sense of dread) that features a surprising twist as it enters the third act and an even more startling ending. It's not often that I am taken completely by surprise by a film's direction, but I was with this one. (And I've just taken three cracks at hinting at the twist while drafting this review, but each time I felt like I was revealing too much and possibly spoiling the film. I feel the surprsing story development here has to be witnessed "cold" to have its full impact.)

As impressed as I am with the ending of the film, it doesn't start out strong. The filmmakers make a tremendous mistake at the beginning of the film by revealing beyond doubt that Alda's character has been possessed by the old man, and that we are dealing with true Satanic magic. By showing us this up front, it removes a degree of mystery and uncertainty that could have make the movie even more suspenseful.

Still, the film does recover nicely from the early blunder, delivering lots of chilling moments, some suitably eerie dream sequences, and one of the best-handled summonings of Satan I've ever seen. It's a film that's worth seeing, and it's a film that doesn't deserve the obscurity it currently endures.

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