Given its close proximity to the release of the film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, it’s little wonder that contemporary reviews tended to compare Mephisto Waltz (1971) unfavorably to what was, for better or worse, one of the most important and influential films of its era. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, films about cults and so-called Satan worshippers have more or less always been their own special subgenre of horror at least dating back to Haxan in 1922. In this larger context, Mephisto Waltz easily stands on its own merits by making a series of unexpected choices, both from a filming standpoint and regarding the film’s complicated protagonist, Paula (played by Jacqueline Bissette).
Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) once played piano magnificently but various circumstances led him away from further developing his skills. This all changes when the virtuoso Duncan Ely (Curd Jurgens) takes a shine to Myles and seemingly randomly leaves a great sum of money to him after his sudden death. At a party before his death, Myles’ wife Paula spots Duncan kissing and embracing his daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins) and concludes that they are romantically entangled, but after Duncan’s death, Roxanne turns her sights on Myles. Paula begins to suspect that Duncan Ely’s soul has somehow taken over Myles’ body, a theory which is confirmed when he suddenly rockets into fame as a concert pianist.
While Myles is traveling the globe, tragedy befalls their family with the surprise death of their daughter, which Paula suspects to have been caused by outside forces. When she meets Bill (Bradford Dillman), Roxanne’s ex-husband, he quickly rejects her ideas and pushes her out of his office, but later he comes to find her in hopes of allying with her against the cult that Myles seems to be wrapped up in. Bill and Paula’s banter is incredibly fun despite its somber subject matter, and it adds a lot to the film. She flirts and seems more than willing to enter a new relationship with him. At one point Bill presses his lips together and muses that once you’ve been with an absolutely amoral monster like Roxanne, it’s hard to find satisfaction with a “regular” person. Regardless, they fall asleep together, only for Paula to find him dead on the beach the next day. Paula’s misfortunes continue to escalate as Myles seems content to live a life completely apart from her, and so she prepares herself to go up against Roxanne with everything she’s got.
The set design and camerawork of Mephisto Waltz are very much of its time in the best way, with a small series of beautiful but ominous houses near the sea as the major recurring location. Hazy mirror shots and surreal moments help emphasize the unreliability of what Paula sees, and the score gives a mercurial undertone to the film that exists well before the horror truly begins. The performances are quirky and a little strange, but it just adds to the dreamy quality of the film.
Paula begins the film as its moral center and rapidly falls into the same depravity that she was once horrified by. While this might make her significantly less likable than Rosemary Woodhouse from Rosemary’s Baby or any number of similar leads in the horror canon, it does grant her a level of personal autonomy that Rosemary would never have. Bissette plays the role teetering between simmering ferocity and callous indifference, and by the end, there is little question that this is the sort of woman who would absolutely destroy another person’s life to take what she felt belonged to her.
In the end, the only thing Paula truly has control over is her own actions, and when given the chance to let it all go, she simply can’t. It’s true that her options are limited: either move on, having lost both her child and husband, or seek revenge, which she most assuredly would not get. In the end, she chooses a compromise that sees her become the most monstrous character of them all.
This is essentially the same choice that Rosemary makes at the end of her own saga (“if you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em!”), but Paula’s motivations are infinitely more dubious, yet it never seems especially out of character. Early in the film, someone asks her where Myles is and she snaps that she isn’t her husband’s keeper, giving a small inkling of a woman that has made compromises in the relationship that she herself may not have been especially comfortable with. While she is briefly devastated by the loss of her daughter, their relationship seemed standoffish even in the best of times. By muting her maternal instincts early in the film, Paula’s moody response to her death becomes all the more believable by the end, as does her eventual choice to give up all prospects of a normal life by aligning with “The Dark Lord.”
Mephisto Waltz is a weird, visually compelling film that does itself a huge favor by leaving the commentary on Satanism in the background and focusing on the moral disintegration of its lead. The Satanists may be scary but underestimating the sheer malice behind Paula’s docile facade is their biggest mistake. While the film seems to make it very clear from the beginning who its baddies are, no one does more damage to Paula than Paula herself, and her gradual, unstoppable heel turn is truly something to behold.
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.