Despite falling well short of greatness, The Mephisto Waltz is an above-average supernatural-horror flick with evocative atmosphere, strong acting, and a unique hook—it’s built around the world of classical music. It should also be noted that the movie stars Jacqueline Bisset at her most ravishingly beautiful, so the eye-candy quotient is considerable. At the beginning of the movie, we meet angsty Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda), a mediocre pianist relegated to interviewing better players in his role as a music journalist. Accompanied by his wife, Paula (Bisset), Myles travels to a sprawling estate for an audience with Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens), a legendary virtuoso. Although Paula gets a bad vibe off Duncan and his twentysomething daughter, Roxanne (Barbara Parkins), Myles quickly falls under Duncan’s spell—because Duncan claims he can train Myles to become a world-class pianist. It turns out the Elys are Satan worshippers, and Duncan has designs on U-Hauling his soul into Myles’ healthy young body, since Duncan is terminally ill but determined to preserve his genius.
It’s not giving anything away to say that Duncan succeeds, because the real thrills begin when Paula starts to realize her husband isn’t her husband anymore. Produced by prolific TV guy Quinn Martin (whose output included The Fugitive and The Streets of San Francisco), the picture is capably directed by Paul Wendkos from a script by Ben Maddow (which was adapted from Fred Mustard Stewart’s novel). The execution is stylish even when the story gets convoluted and silly, and the film benefits tremendously from spooky music by composer Jerry Goldsmith. Additionally, the locations are consistently credible, especially the shadowy expanses of the Ely mansion. Yet it’s the acting that really propels the piece. Alda is poignantly narcissistic as Myles, and then appropriately aloof once Duncan’s spirit inhabits Myles’ body, while Jurgens makes a strong impression as a domineering diva during his few scenes. Parkins, whose dark beauty complements Bisset’s natural look, has fun playing a scheming witch, and Bisset lends a certain measure of emotional credibility to her various scenes of anguish and panic. Best of all, the movie twists and turns toward a perverse ending that almost justifies the movie’s overlong, 115-minute running time.