Creepy, provocative, and sexy, this psychological thriller asks what might happen if a rational modern man began to suspect that he was the reincarnation of someone else—and then complicates that central question by implying that the soul haunting the modern man’s body came back to settle some nasty unfinished business. Michael Sarrazin, perfectly cast because his wide eyes and slim build give him an ethereal quality no matter the circumstances, stars as Peter Proud, a West Coast college professor whose life seems perfect. He’s happy, respected, successful, and romantically involved with a beautiful fellow teacher, Nora (Cornelia Sharpe). Yet when Peter starts experiencing disturbing nightmares and phantom pains that doctors can’t explain, he seeks out help from a paranormal researcher, Samuel (Paul Hecht). Samuel suggests that Peter may be reliving memories from a past life.
Determined to resolve the situation, Peter tracks down the Massachusetts city in which his nightmares/memories take place. Finding the city confirms to Peter that the reincarnation is real. Next, Peter connects with Marcia (Margot Kidder), the widow of Peter’s prior incarnation, and Ann (Jennifer O’Neil), Marcia’s daughter. Peter doesn’t explain to either of these women why he’s in Massachusetts, partially because he doubts they’ll believe him and partially because in the recurring nightmares/memories, Marcia murders Peter’s prior incarnation. Obsessively investigating the past-life mystery damages Peter’s present-day life, because Nora bails on Peter when the going gets weird. Later, things get even worse when Peter’s relationships with Ann and Marcia gain Freudian dimensions.
As helmed by J. Lee Thompson, who mixes carnality and savagery in this film much as he did in the great Cape Fear (1962), The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is efficient, erotic, and evocative—an offbeat mixture of sleazy thrills and thought-provoking concepts. Although the film loses points for its troika of mediocre female performances (Kidder, O’Neill, and Sharpe are each gorgeous but amateurish), Sarrazin’s intensity keeps the piece on track. Written by Max Ehrlich, who adapted his novel of the same name, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud fits into the mid-’70s trend of sensationalistic pseudoscience in popular culture. Furthermore, the writer gives decent lip service to the philosophical and theological implications of Peter’s experience, because—as the story’s paranormal researcher says at one point—the revelation that reincarnation is real could permanently alter the human experience by erasing fear of death. No dummy, Ehrlich delivers all of this heady material in the form of a story filled with sex and violence.
And while the film’s brutality is fairly minor, the film’s sexuality is quite intense. Both lurid aspects of the picture converge in a climactic scene (no pun intended) featuring Marcia masturbating in a bathtub while recalling the brutal affections of her late husband. This startling vignette was almost certainly the most graphic depiction of female self-pleasure in a mainstream movie until the release of Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). Yet the presence of such moments gets to the heart of why The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is so watchable. With strong elements ranging from the disturbing psychosexual connotations of the story to the unnerving score by the great Jerry Goldsmith (love those electronic accents!), The Reincarnation of Peter Proud engages the viewer on myriad levels simultaneously. It’s not high art, per se, but it’s definitely not low art, either.
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud: GROOVY