Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

The Mephisto Waltz (1971). Directed by: Paul Wenkos. Starring: Alan Alda, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Perkins, Curd Jurgens.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film is another entry in the “Rosemary’s Baby was pretty popular, right?” class of Satanism shockers of the early 70s, with a title taken from piano compositions by Franz Liszt and adapted from the 1969 novel of the same name by an individual with the unlikely sobriquet of Fred Mustard Stewart. While it’s no Rosemary’s Baby, The Mephisto Waltz actually has a lot of good qualities that help it stand head and shoulders above much of the rest of its Satanic brethren, even while it also checks off all the expected boxes.

Alan Alda (of TV’s M.A.S.H.) plays a music journalist who is granted an interview with a reclusive piano virtuoso who also happens to be a Satanist who is planning on swiping Alda’s body so that he can live forever. Along the way, we hit most of the usual Satanic film tropes, including vicious dogs, illicit sexual relations, and the fact that Satanists throw the best parties (in this case, a masquerade ball in which all the humans wear animal masks and the dog wears a human one). We also learn that blue tempura paint is integral to witchcraft, as are weird camera angles and blurry filters, and important life lessons like: Never let Satanists make life masks of you or take your blood. We’ve even got Barbara Parkins (Valley of the Dolls) as the Satanist’s cold, seductive daughter/lover, and a brief appearance by Bradford Dillman of Piranha “fame.”

Luckily, for all the standard-issue trappings, The Mephisto Waltz also brings a lot of successful little touches to the table, beginning with a nice bit of amusing foreshadowing as Alan Alda’s daughter writes down the name of our Satanic pianist underneath a drawing of a smiling bat wearing a bowtie. In spite of the blurry filters used for some of the dramatic sequences, there are lots of nice visual touches in The Mephisto Waltz, including the masks in the aforementioned party scene, peacock feathers on the Satanist’s coffin, and a particularly clever dream sequence in which the interior of a house is transformed with snow, trees, and Spanish moss. There are also some great background touches – never quite as good as the Black Bramford stuff in Rosemary’s Baby but often potent – especially a nice bit about the death of the Satanist’s wife, featuring a dog lynching complete with newspaper illustration!

The best thing that Mephisto Waltz has going for it, though, is Jacqueline Bisset as Alan Alda’s wife. Rather than the wilting flower who usually occupies the protagonist slot in these sorts of pictures, driven to question her own sanity by the gaslighting of the Satanists, Bisset’s heroine is a lot more caustic, funny (“You’ve already got one father; anything more than that is bigamy or something”), determined, and ultimately vicious than usual. Early in the film, little mannerisms like the “love, love, love” thing make their relationship feel more real than many onscreen marriages, while also making the whole inevitable proceeding more tragic. And the lengths to which she is finally driven are much more proactive than most such characters, with a final-reel ritual in the hospital providing a few particularly effective moments. (Watch for a nicely chilling delivery of the line, “Master, I’m ready to bargain.”)

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we visit the House on Skull Mountain.