The Women’s Liberation Movement, or more commonly known as Women’s Lib, was in full swing by the mid-’70s. The fight for equality raged on from the late ’60s until…well, what time have you got? It was only natural for the arts to comment on the growing and vocal discontent within the feminist community, and so it was that The Stepford Wives (1975) hit the screen (based on the Ira Levin novel) with a resounding thud. Regardless, it plays as a witty indictment of male morals and suburban blandness.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures in mid-February, The Stepford Wives only brought in $4 million, was wildly derided by critics who thought it hit none of its intended targets, and screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) disagreed with many of the changes imposed by British director Bryan Forbes (International Velvet). Disgruntlements aside, it holds up remarkably well and is definitely a partial inspiration for Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). A fear of identity loss crosses all borders.

Meet the Eberharts, Walter (Peter Masterson – The Exorcist) and Joanna (Katharine Ross – The Legacy), a typical New York couple with two children who decide to chuck the city life when Walter receives a job offer in Stepford, Connecticut. Well, I should say Walter has decided for them; Joanna would rather stay put so she can get her promising photography career off the ground. Joanna feels ill at ease from the moment they enter the town; neatly trimmed lawns and bushes buttressed against smooth concrete driveways instill an immediate listlessness that she can’t deny (nor does she try to).

Although the town is quaint, events turn quickly. Joanna notices that some of the women are… different. They have remote smiles and make vacuous statements on house and husband-keeping that, surprisingly to her, don’t bother Walter at all; perhaps it’s his new appointment as part of the Stepford Men’s Association that has him preoccupied, or maybe it’s his insistence on Joanna assimilating with the other wives of the Association. Luckily she meets two other recent townies, Bobbie (Paula Prentiss – Saturday the 14th) and Charmaine (Tina Louise – Gilligan’s Island), who’ve yet to be influenced. The three set out to find answers to the town women’s compliance and reliance on old time frocks, but how long will they be able to avoid their drastic makeovers?

The Stepford Wives is most definitely of its time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing by the way; it’s good to have markers left behind, signposts of a specific era for future generations to glean whatever they like from the material. While its larger issues—fear of assimilation, loss of freedom, suppression of ideals—are timeless and certainly bleed into Get Out, The Stepford Wives is very much mired in the “me generation”; Joanna’s concern is ultimately reflected toward the self, and the career she’s losing out on. Which of course is how it should be for her and every woman, but Joanna comes across as aggressively selfish in a few scenes, which undercuts some sympathy generated towards her. Women’s groups at the time met the film with derision, and I can see why; I think Goldman probably undercut Joanna’s nobility for narrative effect, and to up the dramatic tension (there isn’t a ton of fission on display) in a story that could use it. Therefore the film relies on the quaintness of the town for any foreboding conveyed.

If you’ve ever seen a horror film from the ’70s, you know that upbeat endings were not their forte, and this is probably another reason why the film was ill-received at the time. Without giving too much away, there is no sense of victory or catharsis for the women, so to call the film pro-feminism is a big stretch. To be fair, it is most assuredly anti-male; the entire patriarchal system is ridiculed here, and each and every male is held in a particularly unflattering light. As for the outcome? Blame the decade, I guess: downers were in. (I was a child at the time, so I never had a strong sociological attachment to endings. I just enjoyed stories well told. Still do.)

So, is The Stepford Wives a satire then of social change, or lack thereof? I would say yes, but it’s also a bit of a dangerous game—you still need a victor, some closure, to bring the point home. Women were, and are, oppressed by the patriarchy; therefore that target needs to be obliterated, otherwise it’s just mean carrot dangling. Perhaps the filmmakers are saying things can never change? Don’t rally your troops around this one, is what I’m saying.

On the other hand, the film has several good digs against consumerism, and how modern-day living is an empty void of commercials and pleasantries. Goldman is a master of dialogue; the film is loaded with small, telling quips about suppression by the ladies, and our main trio is indeed very good. Louise, long removed from the island and her breathy siren Ginger, shows a woman clinging to a lifestyle in place of love, and she nicely acquits herself. Even better is Prentiss as the brassy and exuberant Bobbie, who exudes charm and positivity and strength, which the film does have a good handle on. Ross, as Joanna, is required to do the audience lifting then, and even the uneven emotional arc she’s given can’t diminish her natural grace in front of the camera. As for the men (boo, hiss), it’s a rogues' gallery of superior character actors: William Prince (Spontaneous Combustion), George Coe (Best Seller), Franklin Cover (The Jeffersons), Michael Higgins (Angel Heart), Masterson, and most importantly, Patrick O’Neal (The Stuff) are all wonderfully horrible examples of male privilege gone terribly wrong.

There is a sci-fi hue to The Stepford Wives that I wish was amplified. You won’t get three guesses from me for the town’s big secret, but a slightly deeper exploration may have taken some heat off the muddled politics. But ultimately this is why I think the film is so fascinating (and satisfying), because it’s trying to say something whether it hits or not. Much like the eventual wives of Stepford, it’s pretty perfect on the outside, confused to the core, and impossible to dismiss.

The Stepford Wives is available on DVD from Paramount.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE OTHER HELL (1981)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.