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Mephisto Waltz, The

Entry updated 22 September 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (1971). 20th Century Fox. Directed by Paul Wendkos. Written by Ben Maddow from the novel The Mephisto Waltz (1969) by Fred Mustard Stewart. Cast includes Alan Alda, Jacqueline Bisset, Pamelyn Ferdin, Curt Jürgens, Barbara Parkins and Kathleen Widdoes. 115 minutes. Colour.

A woman uses Magic to inhabit the body of a rival after a similar Identity Transfer is performed on her husband by Satanists.

The Mephisto Waltz eschews the traditional approach to a story of the supernatural – much of the tension of which comes from not knowing to what extent it is true or by what means it is making itself felt to the otherwise rational sensibilities of its protagonists – in favour of colourful effects, fancy dress and lurid dream sequences. The film has all of the allure and none of the ambiguity of the subgenre of folk Horror from which it inherits its visual register: a black dog wears the latex face of a man, California socialites enjoy Sex unrestrained by the bourgeois confines of marriage and a soft-focus female-only nudity extrudes decorously onto the screen at opportune moments. Where the typical "folk horror" set-up might involve an isolated location at which apparently-outmoded beliefs announce themselves through some violent or supernatural event, one of the form's late-1960s variants reverses the metropolitan person adrift in a landscape motif to bring the Fantastika of the old country to the City, often via a secret society of witches or Satanists. The success of Rosemary's Baby (1968), adapted from the novel Rosemary's Baby (1967) by Ira Levin, set the tone for this slow-burn urban alternative: the more gradual the crescendo of its narrative, the greater the impact of its final scene. The Mephisto Waltz swaps the tension of not quite knowing for the drama of not knowing what might happen next. It is easy to see why the film failed at the box office and easy too to see why it has since gained a cult following.

Former pianist and music journalist Myles Clarkson (Alda) interviews piano virtuoso Duncan Ely (Jürgens) and is soon befriended by Ely and his adult daughter Roxanne Delancey (Parkins). Myles is honoured to become friends with them but wife Paula (Bisset) is considerably less pleased: she sees putative father and daughter locked in a passionate embrace at a debauched party. It soon emerges that Duncan and Roxanne are Satanists in an incestuous relationship, and that Duncan wishes to transfer his consciousness into Myles's body – "Hands like yours are one in a hundred thousand" – before the demise of his current body from leukaemia. The pair lures Myles into a situation where a supernatural ritual involving Drugs, death masks and a blue elixir is completed. Duncan's disease-ridden body duly expires and his funeral is attended by the same cavalcade of Satanists that attended his party: "People have a right to their own Religion." Paula is at first pleased with Myles's new-found ability to pursue a career as a concert pianist but becomes suspicious when he starts ignoring her in favour of his career. "I'm nobody the way I was," he tells her. "I feel unfaithful," Paula confides to best friend Maggie West (Widdoes) about Myles's sudden facility as a lover: "He's like three different people." Paula suffers a vivid nightmare in which Duncan (appearing as himself rather than as Myles) informs her that their adolescent daughter Abby (Ferdin) is to be sacrificed as part of the pact with Satan over the identity transfer. An increasingly frazzled Paula fails to prevent Abby's death from a mysterious virus before surviving an attempt on her own life by Roxanne; and yet, she is becoming addicted to sex with Myles-cum-Duncan "even if it's just once more". Paula uses Duncan's grimoire to summon Satan and confronts Roxanne on the staircase of Duncan's mansion: "I made a bargain with the Master. He's on my side now." Paula knocks out Roxanne, then uses the same ritual with which Duncan transferred his consciousness into Myles's body to transfer her consciousness into Roxanne's body, leaving her own body dead in the bath of an apparent suicide. "I changed my perfume," Paula-in-the-body-of-Roxanne tells Duncan-in-the-body-of-Myles when she first sees him in her new form. "I hate it," he replies. "It's what that little housewife used to wear."

A film ostensibly about the transmigration of souls is as much about the absence of such: everything physical decays and thereby reduces us to the status of animals, whatever we may think about Memory or Identity or how each is constituted. The Mephisto Waltz is the only feature film produced by television producer Quinn Martin (1922-1987), best-known in sf for the series The Invaders (1967-1968). All four of the Mephisto Waltzes (1859-1885) by Franz Liszt are incorporated into the score of the film by composer Jerry Goldsmith and the title both of the film and of the novel from which it is adapted were supplied by Juilliard-trained pianist Fred Mustard Stewart. [MD/GSt]

see also: Gods and Demons; Music.


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