The Stepford Wiveses

The original Stepford Wives had some uncanny images that made it an effective horror film.Some time ago, Sarah and I had the good fortune to watch The Stepford Wives, a 1975 horror film that is very reminiscent of other sci-fi/horror classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Stepford Wives is based on a novel by Ira Levin, and was also remade as a dark comedy in 2004. The 2004 movie was the first version I saw, and I thought it was an okay movie despite some very annoying plot holes. The 1975 version is drastically different, to the point where putting the two versions side by side highlights the differences in our movie audiences between the generations.

Before I start, a quick disclaimer: I am writing this comparison as a person who has seen the two movies, but has unfortunately not read the novel (yet). I have also not seen any of the sequels the first movie spawned, such as The Stepford Children. This rant will also include necessary spoilers in order to make a full comparison. If you haven’t seen either version of The Stepford Wives or don’t know the twists involved in the story, I highly recommend watching or reading at least one of the versions of the story before reading this rant. Part of the strength of the films, especially the original one, relies on mystery and surprise.

For those who want to continue anyway, I’ll give a brief breakdown of the premise. A family moves into the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, where everything seems perfect. Specifically, the women of Stepford seem to come right out of a fantasy from the 50s. They do nothing but cook, clean, and work to please their husbands, and that seems to be their only joy in life. The new family’s mother, Joanna Eberhart, becomes increasingly alarmed at this idyllic life that seems so perfect as to be nightmarish. As she continues her investigation, she discovers that the men of the town have been killing their wives and replacing them with robots (or, in the remake, doing some weird nano-thing that makes no sense…more on that later). Naturally, she discovers this just as the men make her their next target.

To begin the comparison, the 1975 version and the 2004 version are entirely different genres right off the bat. The 1975 version is a straight horror movie. The 2004 version is instead a dark comedy, to the point where the cast includes comedic actors like Matthew Broderick. I’m sure there are a number of reasons for the shift in tone, but I think one of the main ones is that horror movies like the 1975 Stepford Wives are not done anymore. The first film builds up steam very slowly. It focuses first on Joanna’s move and how it affects her and her family. Then it builds the supporting cast, introducing Joanna’s friends and the members of the ominous Men’s Club. The first half hour is spent just establishing this dynamic, with no major action to speak of. The budget is modest, and there’s very little in the way of special effects. That type of horror movie just isn’t popular anymore, for whatever reason. Popular horror movies these days require gore, surreal monsters, and terror you can see. Movies like The Ring, Saw, and The Grudge all hit the audience over the head with images that are either very gory or obviously supernatural. The 1975 version focuses on psychological horror, suspense, and character development. There is very little in the way of spectacle there, and no musical cues to tell teenage girls when to scream. In short, that type of movie would put most audiences to sleep these days.

The decision to make the 2004 version a dark comedy leads it to have a great deal more topical humor. There are over the top jokes about reality television, Microsoft, AOL, and so on. Larry King appears at the end of the movie and has the main characters on his talk show. Most audiences today will understand and appreciate that humor, but I have my doubts as to how long such jokes will remain topical. I don’t think reality TV is going to be much more than a bad memory 30 years from now, and media firms and software companies will likely have very different reputations. By comparison, the 1975 version remains almost timeless in terms of presentation and theme. Aside from some fashion choices and expressions that never made it past the 80s, the film can be watched and understood by audiences of almost any generation. But the 2004 film was hardly concerned with its status as an enduring piece of cinema. Like just about every major film, its focus is to draw in as many people as possible for its opening few weeks. After that, the profits of the movie diminish greatly. The same thing was true in 1975, but the industry has had an extra three decades since then to figure out how to maximize their profits and market to the broadest possible target audience.

Stemming from the change in genre is also the way in which the mystery is unraveled between the two versions. In the original film, the pieces of the mystery are all there for the audience to see, but things unfold subtly. The town seems odd, but it could just as easily be Joanna’s own paranoia. Little details like a sketch artist drawing Joanna’s eyes or the numerous scientific and industrial facilities outside of Stepford eventually add up, but no one ever comes out and says what’s going on. The ultimate revelation comes when Joanna, in a paranoid fit, stabs one of her former friends, causing the robot to malfunction. In the 2004 version, this mystery is nonexistent. The women of Stepford are obviously freaks from the beginning, and the audience sees things going on behind the scenes that the characters never see. The secret is revealed early on when Joanna and her friends idly play with a remote, causing the robot wife to malfunction somewhat in the background (a comedic scene, since the characters don’t see the results but the audience does). While the 1975 version focuses almost exclusively on Joanna’s perspective and lets the audience figure things out as she does, the 2004 version flat out tells the audience the secret behind Stepford, and then allows them to watch as Joanna and friends try to figure out what the viewers already know.

The issue of tolerance comes up in both films, albeit in different ways. The 1975 film makes mention of the first black couple to move into Stepford, and suggests near the end that the wife will eventually become one of the Stepford wives as well. Since race is not as much of an issue as it used to be, the 2004 version uses the big minority of the 21st century, homosexuals. A gay couple is introduced, one of whom is the stereotypical prissy gay man and the other who is a more conservative gay republican. Naturally, the prissy gay man eventually takes the “wife” role, and is turned into a robot by his partner, since gay republicans are apparently evil entities who are really just hiding the fact that all homosexuals must fit into our stereotypes. That last bit might seem bitter, but apparently that’s what the film is trying to suggest, since the good gay guy actually says something along the lines of, “You can’t be gay and a republican. That’s like being gay with a bad hair cut.”

The role of the women in Stepford before they become robots is very different. In the 1975 version, the Stepford women were just normal wives. The reason the men replace them is because they can. The men don’t want partners; they want perfection. Any flaw on the part of the women is a reason to replace them; one husband’s main problem with his wife seems to be her obsession with tennis, for example. Comparatively, the men in the 2004 version are not so much unsatisfied with their wives as they are threatened by them. The 2004 Stepford wives were once modern, empowered women – authors, financiers, lawyers, and television producers. The men transform their wives because they want to be in control of their family again. This detail offers a pretty revealing look at the role of women in different generations. In the 70s, Joanna is an empowered woman because she has a job as a freelance photographer and doesn’t take crap from her husband. In the 21st century, Joanna is an empowered woman because she has more money and authority than her husband. She is, as her husband points out, a super woman.

Probably the biggest difference between the two films is the ending. The 1975 version ends in one of the most depressing ways possible. Despite Joanna’s courage and intelligence, she flat out fails at the end. She encounters the robotic version of herself (sans the eyes, which helps make the scene very creepy), and gets strangled to death. The final scene ends with the new Joanna walking through the supermarket, having become just another Stepford wife. It is an ending devoid of hope, where the good guys lose entirely.

By comparison, the 2004 version ends in a completely different manner. After the supermarket scene, which is very reminiscent of the 1975 film, it is revealed that Joanna’s assimilation was faked somehow. Moreover, it turns out that the women who were replaced are not really robots at all; instead, they had machines placed in their brain that changed their behavior. This allows Joanna and her husband to save the day, and all the Stepford wives are freed. It also creates a huge plot hole in the film, since the wives had previously shown that they were definitely robots. At one point, one of the men runs his ATM card through her, and she spits out a wad of bills. Apparently, due to strife behind the scenes, no one caught this gaping plot hole.

Plot and logic problems aside, however, the new ending highlights a change in tone of horror movies over the years. Sure, the 2004 film is not strictly a horror movie, but it still has horror roots. What horror film of the past decade has actually had an ending where the heroes completely and utterly lost? Even in movies like The Ring, where the ending is a downer, there is still some hope, which in turn usually leads to a sequel. Those endings are more like the old, “The End…?” screens that played near the finish of a B-movie where the monster might not really have been defeated. The 70s had films like The Stepford Wives and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where there is absolutely no hope at the conclusion. The monstrous force that started the conflict has clearly won the day at the end of those movies; even the most heroic and daring people ended up being assimilated. For whatever reason, those endings have become nonexistent in more recent years. Maybe it’s because they don’t screen well, or maybe it’s a generational thing. Incidentally, Invasion of the Body Snatchers got yet another remake in 2007. Following the trend suggested here, it allowed the heroes a victory in the end. Despite trying for a somewhat pessimistic tone, I think it might be the only remake of the film to provide total success for humanity against the pod people, even curing those who had already been replaced.

As should be obvious by now, I have a definite preference as to which version of The Stepford Wives is better. For once, though, I’m not trying to tear something down in order to build something else up. Both versions of the movie are entertaining films, although the ending of the 2004 version really highlights its flaws. But what I find interesting is how each movie reflects the period it was created in. One advantage of remakes is that they show how much society has changed between the two films. Other films that make for excellent examples of this are the various King Kong movies, the James Bond franchise, and the many different versions of some Disney animated features. Even when a remake completely butchers the original concept (The Wicker Man, I’m looking in your direction), something can at least be pulled from it, even if that something amounts to nothing more than an amateurish sociology experiment.

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