I’m a big fan of Ira Levin’s novels, and most have been adapted into films, including Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, Sliver, A Kiss Before Dying, and of course, The Stepford Wives.
I was young when the 1975 film came out, but I imagine it was on television within a few years after, because I also remember seeing it for the first time at a young age. While I always assumed it was quite famous, even spawning a bunch of sequels, upon watching the interviews on the DVD, I was shocked to learn several things I never would have guessed about it—starting with it being a huge commercial failure!
Secondly, the performance of Nanette Newman, who plays the first Stepford wife we meet, was generally panned by those involved in making the movie. Her robotic performance as the perfect prim and proper wife is actually brilliantly chilling if you ask me.
And finally, the feminist movement absolutely revolted against this film when it was released. It goes to show you that the “PC”/“snowflake”/“hyper-sensitive” culture isn’t a new plague in society. Just as Cruising was hated by the gay boys, Basic instinct was hated by lesbians, and blaxploitation flicks experienced backlash, the wives highly offended those who felt women were being portrayed awfully. And just like all those other films, the easily offended totally missed the point, not only of the movie but of horror in general.
Horror is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. Horror is supposed to present horrific possibilities. And the possibility here is. I coincidentally watched these films just as numerous states were banning abortion and controlling women’s bodies, so the sheer terror of what affluent white men are capable of doing to women—even their own beloved wives—was magnified as I revisited this film from nearly 40 years ago. In other words—men are fucking awful. The problem here is not the women—they are the ones the audience identifies with and fears for.
Essentially, The Stepford Wives, in case you didn’t know, is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers concept, with the women’s husbands joining a special club in which they secretly replace their wives with perfect Betty Crocker versions of themselves. The women are there to please their men in every way possible, right down to the men being able to augment the new versions of their wives. Sick…and so believable, sadly.
Hell, feminists would have had their tubes tied if the film had gone as planned. Rather than the goodie-goodie image the women present when converted in the film, they were originally supposed to essentially be Playboy Bunnies walking around in slutty outfits. I’m glad they weren’t, because that would have branched away from the reality of married men fucking whores on the side and then forcing them to get abortions while passing anti-abortion laws to hurt the marginalized…
Ironically, although it’s not touched upon enough, there is a white privilege moment in the film when several of the women try to act all cool and liberal while gossiping about a black family that has moved into town. We never see the black husband inducted into the men’s club, which begs the question—would he be welcome? Is it gender before race in Stepford? Would have been great if that had been explored even a little. And speaking of mixed race issues, the white dude from The Jeffersons appears in the film, as does Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.
The concept of The Stepford Wives is what makes it so eerie. This isn’t a “scary” movie in the traditional sense. No jump scares or anything like that. Katharine Ross is perfect as the strong, independent woman who moves to Stepford with her husband and children (one of them being a young Mary Stuart Masterson).
As Ross begins to notice the women in the town are weird, she befriends another new resident, played by Paula Prentiss, who is also equally perfect in her role as a free-spirited, confident woman.
The pair begins to investigate and determines something is very wrong. It’s even brilliant that they get it totally wrong for a while, becoming convinced another horror trope is at play…
There are essentially two scenes that drive the point home and bring on the spine tingles. First is when Ross confronts one of the wives and things escalate surprisingly quick…with Ross taking a huge gamble in initiating it. The other is when she sneaks into the creepy men’s club mansion on a rainy night and comes face-to-face with her own face. EEK!
REVENGE OF THE STEPFORD WIVES (1980)
The director of the Dr. Phibes films goes the made-for-TV route for this sequel that takes place ten years later (even though it was made five years later).
Sharon Gless plays a TV network reporter who comes to Stepford to write a story on why no one ever leaves the town once they move there. You have to wonder why the town has a hotel welcoming guests when it has such a nasty little secret to keep.
The men’s club leader isn’t thrilled with her poking around. While Sharon befriends new couple Julie “Marge Simpson” Kavner and her cop husband Don Johnson, Stepford wives are used as weapons to try to kill her. Most notably…Mrs. Roper! Awesome.
Forget everything you learned in the original. These are not robot replacements of the wives. The wives simply take pills four times a day when a siren blows throughout the town. These pills are what keep them controlled…and sometimes cause them to malfunction like robots?
Yeah, it’s bad, but it’s 1980 made-for-TV perfection in all its silliness. The worst part for me is when Gless gets the same creepy moment Katharine Ross did in the original, confronting a malfunctioning wife, but any eerie atmosphere is ruined because there’s sappy 1950s sitcom music playing! I get that they were going for a whole June Cleaver wink, but it ruins the scene. The least they could have done was have that wife go after her with a cleaver instead of a wife in a different scene…
The climax is quite funny, with the Stepford wives coming down from their drug addiction and revolting against the monster known as man.
THE STEPFORD CHILDREN (1987)
This time around the wives are still robots, so there’s no telling how everything went back to the way it was after Revenge. There is a vague reference in the men’s club to things going wrong once before, if that helps you imagine continuity.
Barbara Eden moves to Stepford with her kids and her husband, played by Karen’s original husband Sid on Knots Landing, which he left like 5 years before so he could make mostly TV movies, including this one.
What are you and your friends doing to me, daddy???
Why is The Stepford Children one of my faves in the series? Because it’s essentially an 80s teen flick with some horror thrown in at the end. Eden’s son and daughter are the new kids in town, and they’re totally 80s cool, high hair and all…but the other kids in school aren’t.
Basically it’s Footloose, right down to a high school dance scene in which the kids politely dance to ballroom big band music. The new kids put on some totally 80s rock wave, the moshing starts, and they get arrested!
Meanwhile, Eden tries to start a PTA…I guess because she was so successful in Harper Valley. The school administration is nasty with her. Her husband starts to humiliate her in public. He’s ashamed of the way his kids look and wants them to be more prim and proper…never seeming to notice that Barbara is a MILF who should be dancing on the hood of a car in a Whitesnake video.
Just think. If I were a father and wanted to make kids act like they did back in my day, you young brats would get to live like it was the 1980s. Who’s the world’s best daddy?
Fricking Oscar Goldman, having experience with fembots, is the leader of the men’s club this time, so he knows what he’s doing when it comes to making humans into robots, and he doesn’t have to worry about the Bionic Woman putting a stop to his evil plot.
It takes quit some time, but eventually the kids realize things are not right, and then Barbara does as well when her son’s new girlfriend suddenly starts acting very different, thanks to being sold down the river by her dad, played by Principal Morloch from Fame.
Eden doesn’t really step into the final lady role until the last half hour. In her search for the truth, she even goes as far as digging up a Stepford grave, delivering one of the best horror moments of the series.
During the final confrontation, there’s a freaky encounter with incomplete robots, and there’s also a bizarre monologue in which Oscar Goldman says they’re doing it to save the future generations. Um…how can there be a future if the kids are all robots that can’t procreate?
THE STEPFORD HUSBANDS (1996)
The director of April Fool’s Day, When a Stranger Calls, and When a Stranger Calls Back goes for Lifetime level sci-fi horror with this final sequel before the remake.
Donna Mills acts like she’s still Abby Ewing as she gets bitchy regularly with her husband, who is devastated because he just released a book that was a huge flop. They may as well have had Ted Shackelford play the husband.
It’s a shock that this evil vixen becomes the good guy for a change, but in terms of Stepford mythos, it’s not a surprise. Making a strong statement about women being better than men, this time when the husband starts turning weird and the wife realizes something is not kosher in Stepford, instead of joining the madness, she takes on the community to stop them from converting her husband into the perfect man. I guess she preferred him in his miserable state so she could continue kicking him while he was down.
Cindy Williams is her friend who backstabs her to get her husband sent to the “clinic”, and not surprisingly, Louise Fletcher plays the evil mastermind.
And while there is a conversion process, this movie harkens back to Revenge, requiring the men to take pills. But I do want to know exactly what the purpose is of the coiled hose attached to the men’s crotches during conversion…
THE STEPFORD WIVES (2004)
Coming nearly 30 years later, this movie is as white as the original, but at least there’s a gay couple, and Bette Midler as the free-spirited friend does balk about the lack of color in town, reminding us that this has always been a story about the perfect little segregated town in America.
The remake isn’t going for chilling or eerie. It’s more of a satirical reimagining, with legendary Frank Oz directing. To me the tone is like Stepford injected with a campy dose of Witches of Eastwick.
Aside from a vastly rewritten ending, the plot is virtually identical following a very weird reality TV show opening (relating to main character Nicole Kidman being a TV executive).
After Kidman has a breakdown, her husband Matthew Broderick moves the family to Stepford, where they meet their real estate agent Glenn Close, who is married to Christoper Walken, leader of the men’s club.
The new house is automated (so why the need for controlled housewives?) and comes with a robot dog…which seems to foreshadow the women being replaced by robots.
And that is where the biggest plot hole comes in. The robot replacement seems the way things are, complete with remote controls for wives, as well as Nicole eventually coming face to face with her robot self. However, the new ending, which has Nicole figuring out how to save the wives, implies that they are not robots at all, but merely have had computer chips implanted that control them!
Despite the terrible screwup in the writing, the different ending is what saves the film for me because it’s a delicious twist and also very campy. Bette Midler also has a great scene in which she malfunctions…if you watch the deleted scenes. Her big shining moment is heavily cut, probably because it is absolutely cartoonish and absurd, but it’s so Bette at her funniest that I wish it had been left in.
The cast also includes Jon Lovitz, singer Faith Hill at the height of her crossover success in a gimmicky role as one of the wives, and go-to actor Roger Bart, who always steps in when a stereotypical gay guy is needed.
His character is the most specific update of the story’s premise. How does the men’s club handle a couple comprised of two men? It complicates matters since the men, to prove they’re open-minded, invite both male spouses to join. And bringing a new social and political statement into the mix, the gay guy who has female friends and despises Republicans is the one who doesn’t exactly meet the men’s club criteria for being a Stepford husband. Imagine that….
Sticking to that theme, the film gives us way too much blatant exposition about the conversion process and the thinking behind it, including spelling out that the threat men are feeling is the independence of successful women.
Even so, there’s more to it than that, and the twist in this remake should have gotten feminists’ tubes in a knot more than the original. At the same time, it’s creepy to realize this remake from 15 years ago reflects the reality of how white women overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump…