A Famously Awful Movie

The Stepford Wives

The Stepford Wives is the strange case of an awful movie that somehow became part of the cultural vocabulary. How could something so unambiguously bad penetrate so deeply into our society?

“Stepford wives” has become synonymous with unnatural, soul-crushing suburban homogeneity, and the movie from which the term comes mimics those robotic women — slow-moving and monotonous. There’s almost nothing to like in the picture: It has terrible performances and no real characters, it isn’t creepy or scary, it’s slack and under-plotted, the dog disappears almost without notice, it’s humorless, and it doesn’t even have that special kitschy bad-movie appeal. It’s just dull.

The film’s social commentary consists of the startling revelations that suburban home life turns people into robots! And that housework sucks the life out of vivacious women! And that many men would prefer to have drones to human beings as mates!

On the credit side, Paula Prentiss, as the frisky neighbor, seems alive (compared to the other performers). And there’s a flicker of wit when the replacement wives are shown to have bigger breasts than the originals.

The basic plot of The Stepford Wives is eerily similar to Rosemary’s Baby, suggesting that Ira Levin (who wrote both novels on which these movies are based) works with a limited arsenal: A couple moves into a new home, the husband sells out his wife to a cult-like clique for personal gain, and the wife finds herself in extreme danger.

But this 1975 piece of shit has little else in common with the 1968 Roman Polanksi classic. Katharine Ross’ protagonist never approaches the frailty, fear, paranoia, and isolation created by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, and the dread of Polanski’s movie is drawn largely from what the audience and Rosemary suspect but don’t know. There’s ambiguity and texture that’s missing from The Stepford Wives.

That doesn’t mean the movie couldn’t work, if done properly. The body-switching motif is certainly fertile and potent. Ray Bradbury had fun with it in his 1949 story “Marionettes, Inc.” — in which a husband replaces himself with a robot to escape his overbearing wife — and three versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers have spoken to generational social concerns. But The Stepford Wives is a bad treatment, too thin and obvious in the conception and flat in the execution.

So, for better or worse, it’s being re-made as a horror comedy directed by Frank Oz and featuring Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken, Faith Hill, and Glenn Close. That’s a hell of a lot of talent to throw at something that has a long way to go to become decent.

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