Dance with the Devil

Jacqueline Bisset and Alan Alda dance with the devil in The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

The best horror films aren’t about anonymous slashers in the woods or calls coming from inside the house. They’re about waking up one morning, looking over at the sleeping form beside you, and wondering who in the world that person is. That’s why Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining are so terrifying; it has nothing to do with Satanic cults or evil hotels. It’s about not realizing that the person you want to spend the rest of your life with is fallible to the point of annihilating you.

The Mephisto Waltz started life as a novel by Fred Mustard Stewart that I read years and years ago, during a horror novels craze (which are delicious in that in-between week of post-Christmas, pre-New Year). The plot is, in a superficial way, similar to that of Rosemary’s Baby: young couple get involved with Satanists. But instead of impregnating an unwitting woman with the spawn of the devil, daughter and father Roxanne (Barbara Parkins  of Valley of the Dolls, here looking washed out) and the dying Duncan Lyle transplant Lyle’s mind into Myles Clarkson’s (Alan Alda) body… because he has wonderful hands, and Lyle is a world-renowned concert pianist. Part of their bargain is that they also have to kill Myles’ young daughter, Abby, which is when Myles’ wife Paula (Bisset) starts having suspicions.

It’s a strange little film, very much a ’70s movie. There are lost of distorted, jumpy shots of carousing party-goers and whacked-out sex (especially a particularly passionate New Year’s Eve kiss between Roxanne and Lyle). But there’s also a wonderful subplot where, while Paula is catching on to what exactly wrought such a change in her husband, she’s titillated by it.

Alda’s performance is fine, if a bit unmemorable. He seems to think that the best way to indicate that he’s now Lyle is to lower his voice a bit, which doesn’t quite do the trick, but the script carries him through. Parkins is wan and Lyle hasn’t much screen time, so it’s up to Bisset to keep you interested. And she does, snapping out lines like, “They tried to kill me, too, but I guess I’m just a shade. Too. TOUGH for them!” with Bette Davis’ elan.

I won’t spoil the delicious ending (suffice it to say that it revolves around Shalimar perfume), which is hurt a bit in the translation from page to screen, but still packs a wonderful wallop. When it comes to thrillers and horror films, few of them are truly worth your time (trust me, it’s one of my Areas of Interest). The Mephisto Waltz, however., is surprisingly fun and effective.

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