The Horrors of Domesticity: The Works of Ira Levin

Facing the complications and stresses of pregnancy as a couple attempts bring new life into the world.  Striving and fighting to raise a child that can function in society as a compassionate, successful adult.  Staring out the window at your suburban neighborhood and watching your identity stamped into conformity minute by passing minute.  These are fears all of us can understand.  We may never (hopefully) have to fight the zombie apocalypse, be chased around our house by an urban legend, or peer into the abyss of strange geometries that drive men mad, but we must all confront the horrors of everyday life.

Ira Levin (1929-2007), a playwright and author, examined these domestic horrors in three books written in the late 1960’s and 1970’s:  Rosemary’s Baby (1967), The Boys From Brazil (1976), and The Stepford Wives (1972).  Each of these novels share a number of traits with the subject of my last column, The Exorcist.  Like The Exorcist, their titles and plots have become a part of the cultural shorthand we use to discuss current events and social trends.  Also, like The Exorcist, each spawned a relatively successful or critically acclaimed movie.  Finally, as novels focused on everyday horrors drawn from common experiences, they make for excellent introductions to the horror genre.

The Kids are All Right? – Rosemary’s Baby (1967)

The Who may have made it a statement, but Rosemary Woodhouse may be asking it as a question.  She and her husband seem to live a charmed life.  They have moved into a new apartment, her husband has a great new job, and the neighbors seem always ready to pitch in and lend a helping hand.  Yet as strange occurrences happen to friends from her old life, and has her child continues to grow insider, Rosemary starts to believe that the people around want her baby for sinister purposes.  Is she the subject of a crazed conspiracy, or is it just the hormones and emotions of pregnancy acting on her mind?

This book is a good read that keeps one guessing as to the true nature of the situation until the climax.  It raises questions of just who we are as people,  and how much of ourselves do we sacrifice to an unborn child.

Son of Rosemary (1997)

Ira Levin wrote a sequel novel to his original work.  Set in the then future year of 1999 (32 years since the birth in Rosemary’s Baby for you fans of foreshadowing), this book focuses on a grown-up Andy Woodhouse, his charitable foundation, and Rosemary’s attempt to figure out why she cannot shake the feeling that her son is up to something terrible.

I have not read this book, but if you are interested in more of the story with the original characters, it exists.

The Movies

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Directed by Roman Polanski and starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and Ruth Gordon

A fairly accurate adaption of the novel, and a well-acted and shot film, Rosemary’s Baby conveys the sense of isolation of a woman trapped by her perceptions and by the new life inside her.  It is definitely worth a viewing.

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976) – Directed by Sam O’Steen and Starring Stephen McHattie, Patty Duke, and George Maharis

A made for television movie, this production has little connection to the original book, and tells an entirely different story the Levin’s 1997 sequel.

Rosemary’s Baby (2014) with Zoe Saldana and Jason Isaacs

A forthcoming NBC television mini-series, this is a four hour retelling of the original novel.  It will be interesting to see what changes have been made to a now almost fifty year old story, and how it accounts for some of the aspects of the conspiracy in a world with cell phones and the internet.

Nature vs. Nurture –The Boys from Brazil (1976)

 

Yakov Libermann is a hunter operating out of Vienna, who is trying to track down those Nazis that fled the fall of Germany at the end of World War II so they can be made to face justice for those crimes.  When he receives a tip on the location of Dr. Josef Mengele, a Nazi Doctor responsible for horrific human experiments (and still at large at the time Levin wrote his novel), Libermann heads to Brazil.  There he uncovers a series of planned murders, and a conspiracy to revive a dark secret of the Third Reich.

An interesting book that blends the Nazi hunting of the 1960s and 1970s with what was at the time cutting edge medical science; The Boys form Brazil leads us to question what has more impact on our nature:  our upbringing or our genetic coding.

The Movie

The Boys from Brazil (1978) Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and Starring Gregory Peck, Lawrence Oliver, and James Mason

A suspenseful thriller, the film is shot in the conspiratorial style common to the works of the 1970s.  It is an angry film featuring dynamic performances by three classic actors.  In-jokes and references in other media have probably spoiled the ending, but it is still worth a look.

Suburban Conformity – The Stepford Wives (1972)

 

When Joanna Eberhart, a successful photographer from New York City, moves with her husband and children to the tranquil suburb of Stepford, Connecticut, she is disconcerted by the strangely submissive and docile wives who live in the community.  Joanna begins to suspect that the woman are somehow being compelled to act in this fashion, and attempts to escape what she fears may be her eventual fate.  However, the forces behind Stepford may be far stranger than she can possibly imagine.

Asking questions on issues of conformity, feminism, gender roles, and the way suburbia gets into ones soul and sands away the unique edges of a personality; The Stepford Wives is a suspenseful read.  Unfortunately the ending of this book has pretty much been spoiled, as the concept of The Stepford Wife has become so ubiquitous it is often used as short hand to label any woman that sublimates their individuality to home, family, or domesticity, at the cost of their career.  If you have never seen one of the movies however, I encourage reading the book first.

The Movies

The Stepford Wives (1974) – Directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, and Peter Masterson

The original, in my opinion, is the superior film.  It captures the paranoia and disassociation the 1970s seemed to be produce in American culture.  In the chaotic 1970s the 1950s dream of suburbia started to seem like a conformist trap, and I think this movie is stronger for its closeness to questions of that time about Feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Additionally, it features a script by William Goldman, who maybe one of the best screenwriters of the modern day.  He discusses the making of The Stepford Wives in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983).

The Stepford Wives (2004) – Directed by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, and Bette Midler with Christopher Walken and Glenn Close

A bigger version, with bigger special effects, broader comedy and action, and a sprawling plot that does not quite add up (basically the ending reveal renders several scenes of the film impossible).  It is not as good in my opinion as the original.  But it may be more accessible to modern audiences, and I would pick Nicole Kidman over Katherine Ross if I were choosing a Stepford Wife.  The movie also has a different ending then the original book.

There is an additional passel of television movies that continue the legacy of The Stepford Wives:

The Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980) a television movie retelling of the original book with different plot mechanisms and results.

The Stepford Children (1987) a television movie where the Stepford processes are applied to both the women and the children of the town.

The Stepford Husbands (1996) a gender-swapped version, where the husbands get Stepfordized by their wives, and the plot of the book is inverted.

(By this point you’d think that word would have gotten around to stay out of Stepford).

Other Recommendations:

 

Ira Levin has one more speculative fiction novel:

This Perfect Day (1970) 

Levin engages in some technological dystopian world building.  A member of society wakes up, discovers the truth of society, is offered a chance to be a leader, and sets about to bring the whole system down.  In the vein of 1984 or Brave New World with some very late 60s touches (i.e. institutionalized drug use).

The Nanny (1987) by Dan Greenburg 

A young couple is having trouble with their infant child.  They contact a child care service to arrange for a nanny.  The nanny arrives with some particular attitudes, and bizarre incidents begin to occur.  It was made into a 1990 film called The Guardian (directed by William Friedkin and starring Jenny Seagrove, Dwier Brown, and Carey Lowell).  A rather different adaption of the book, it can be counted as further evidence that you probably should not trust the welfare of your child to ancient druidic cults (see also Warlock II:  The Armageddon, Halloween III:   Season of the Witch, and Halloween The Curse of Michael Myers).

Bethany’s Sin (1980)

Robert R. McCammon’s second novel takes the situation of The Stepford Wives and flips it around.  In this case the men of the community are held in line by a powerful ancient force that has control of the town’s women with grave plans for the rest of the world.

 

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