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The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

Kino Lorber
Blu-ray Disc Released: 4/18/2017

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 4/26/2017

"Alan Alda horror movie" sounds like it could be the name of a punk rock band or the worst possible clue in "Pictionary". But, it's actually a real thing, as a pre-M*A*S*H* Alda starred in the 1971 supernatural thriller The Mephisto Waltz. Alda had been in some TV movie and had began to build a resume with leading roles in feature films before embarking in his first, and as far as I can tell, only horror role. When we think of Alda today, we picture the easy-going funny-guy who has become his persona. Can he carry a scary movie?

Despite having studied at Julliard, Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) was unable to make it as a professional pianist, so he has settled for writing about music. While this career isn't necessarily fulfilling, he is very happy with his wife, Paula (Jacqueline Bisset). Myles jumps at the chance to interview the renowned pianist Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens), and is greeted by the man in his palatial home. Ely is very curt at first, until he notices Myles' hands and begins to ask about his past. Seemingly fascinated that Myles is a fellow pianist, the older gentleman brings quickly brings Myles into his inner circle, introducing him to his daughter, Roxanne Delancey (Barbara Perkins), and his colleagues. While Myles is enthusiastic about this new crowd, Paula doesn't care for it, and she doesn't trust Ely or Roxanne. When Myles' behavior begins to change, Paula starts to investigate Ely and Roxanne's dark past.

I had two immediate reactions to The Mephisto Waltz. First of all, I quickly checked the release date, as I instinctively knew that it was post-1968. How did I know this? Because there is such a "we want to be Rosemary's Baby" vibe to this movie. The strange, upper-class people with their casual discussions about religion, coupled with Myles sudden success coupled with Paula's growing paranoia veers inarguably into Rosemary's Baby territory. The film is based on a 1969 novel by Fred Mustard Stewart, which was published two years after Ira Levin wrote Rosemary's Baby. I'm not accusing anyone of plagiarism here -- all that I'm saying is that this is a good example of how producers in that era were not bashful about trying to cash in on the success of other films.

Which brings me to my second point. The Mephisto Waltz is one of those movies which makes me sometimes wish that I could watch movies without bringing along the knowledge from the other films which I've seen. Along with the cues which reminded me of Rosemary's Baby, once the big plot point is launched in the second act, I knew exactly what was happening. It was so obvious to me that I honestly don't know if it was supposed to be a surprise when it was revealed. Therefore, I found myself simply waiting to for Paula to learn the truth so that the story could advance.

The people behind the camera with The Mephisto Waltz came from the world of television, and, at times, it shows. Producer Quinn Martin had a long career and was responsible for shows like The Fugitive, The Untouchables, Cannon, The Streets of San Francisco, and Barnaby Jones, while Director Paul Wendkos had helmed many TV movies. They deliver a film which has a nice look, but is also very emotionless and detached. I won't give anything away, but something very tragic happens to Paula in the film and she just goes about her business. I wanted someone in this movie to actually feel something, but everyone seems very numb. The supernatural elements of the film are handled very clumsily. In Rosemary's Baby, Polanski didn't make things overly horrific in order to keep the viewer guessing. Here, I got the feeling that Wendkos wasn't sure just how explicit things should be, so it all just comes across as confused. The ending is very unsatisfying, as Paula sets forth a plan which I understood, but I felt rang as very unrealistic.

Despite having two familiar names in the lead, The Mephisto Waltz is a movie which has flown under the radar for years. Despite being a student of horror films from the 70s, my only exposure to the film had been a very quick clip in the 1984 oddity Terror in the Aisles. Having now seen the film, it's obvious why it's never achieved even cult status. While it's truly interesting to see Alda play such an intense character, the movie is very lackluster and has no truly memorable moments. Do yourself a favor and stick with Rosemary's Baby.

The Mephisto Waltz does a bad job of explaining its title on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Kino Lorber. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 29 Mbps. The image is notably sharp and clear, showing only a trace amount of grain and no noticeable defects from the source materials. The colors look good (we get some nice Technicolor tones here) and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is good and we get a nice amount of depth here. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 2-channel track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 1.6 Mbps. The track provide clear dialogue and sound effects. The music in the film sounds fine, and never drowns out the actors. The concerts and party scenes deliver some layered sound, despite the limitations of the track.

The Mephisto Waltz Blu-ray Disc contains just a few extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from film historian Bill Cooke. This is followed by a second COMMENTARY with actress Pamelyn Ferdin and filmmaker Elijah Drenner. The last extra is a TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long