70s Memories: The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)

Written by Max Ehrlich, based on his novel
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Starring Michael Sarrazin, Jennifer O’Neill, Margot Kidder
Released April 25, 1975 (New York City)
RT 105 min.
Home Video Coming on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Classics on May 29, 2018
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

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Here’s one of the things wrong with the United States. Except for Sisters and The Exorcist, most of the horror movies of the 1970s were rated PG (or GP, the equivalent at the time) when they were first released in theaters.  These movies contained brutal deaths by hacksaws, hatchets and knives, vicious attacks by rats, snakes and spiders, and gruesome depictions of brain surgery, vampire bites and premeditated murder.  One of them even foretold the destruction of Earth by nuclear bomb… and it was rated G!  We didn’t mind that “general audiences” watched these movies; or, at the strictest, watched them under “parental guidance.”

Throw sex into the mix, though, and the movie was automatically rated R. This suggests that it’s perfectly fine for our children to witness violence, but heaven forbid they witness the most natural act of nature.  It’s no wonder that we live in such a violent society and so many people have hang-ups about sex.  Take, for example, the 1975 movie, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud.  There’s nothing scary about it.  Oh, it’s a decent thriller, but (heaven forbid!) there’s frequent nudity, tastefully filmed scenes of mutually consensual intercourse, and a scene where Margot Kidder plays with herself in the bathtub.

This movie caused some controversy in the Owens household that lingers to this day. I remember it being another one of those movies that, based on the TV commercials, I really wanted to see.  It was a fairly big thing for a parent to take his or her child to an R-rated movie, I guess.  My mother addressed her specific concerns with me.  They came primarily from the fact that Jennifer O’Neill, one of the stars of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, had previously starred in Summer of ’42, in a very adult, sexual role.  She eventually relented and I distinctly recall sitting with her at a weekday matinee in Oklahoma City.

My mother doesn’t remember many of the stories that I do; however, she remembers taking me to see The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. She recently told me how uncomfortable she felt, especially when we left the theater and she got the evil eye from several older women in the lobby.  My brother, who would have been five years old at the time remembers the controversy over the movie and being told there was “no way” he was going to be able to see it.  All this over a little sex.  How is that so harmful?  I wonder if it’s because, in general, “we” are uncomfortable talking about sex.

So, was all the controversy worth it? What kind of movie is The Reincarnation of Peter Proud today?  I quite like it.  I think my only issue with a child seeing it is that he or she would probably find it boring.  It’s fairly talky, there’s not a lot of action and the subject matter is a little (dare I say) intellectual.

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The movie opens with a vivid dream of a man’s murder in a lake. College professor Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin) wakes up in a cold sweat and his girlfriend, Nora (Cornelia Sharpe) says, “Jesus, I thought I was sleeping with another man.”  Little does she know how right she is about that.  Peter comes to believe that he is the reincarnation of the murdered man.  Investigating the phenomenon at an occult bookstore, he asks for books on reincarnation.  The clerk points him towards Edgar Cayce and says, “Everyone’s into it these days.”

I can vouch for that. In the mid-70s, reincarnation was a popular subject.  It wasn’t only horror movies (Audrey Rose, The Manitou, Night of Dark Shadows) that dealt with reincarnation, but also two of the decade’s most popular comedies (All of Me and Heaven Can Wait).  As a teenager, I read Cayce and became quite interested in the idea of reincarnation.  (It doesn’t seem that I hear much about it these days; I think time travel has replaced it as the fantastical pop culture “concept du jour.”)

The entire movie is about Peter discovering “who he is.” Spotting a familiar town on the local news, he travels to Massachusetts to find it.  Once there, as more memories return, the dreams go away (except for the one pestering murder in the lake dream).  He ultimately learns he is the reincarnation of Jeffrey Curtis, a philandering husband to the daughter of a rich banker.  It was his wife, Marcia (Margot Kidder) who beaned him on the head with an oar in the lake nearly 30 years ago.

Curtis apparently had a three-month old daughter at the time. When he meets the grown woman, Ann (Jennifer O’Neill), he falls in love with her.  Here is where the primary conflict of the movie arises.  If you think about it, as Peter becomes more in touch with his previous self, he’d actually be sleeping with his own daughter.  The movie doesn’t shy away from that awkwardness.  He acknowledges it.  Sam (Paul Hecht), the parapsychologist who’s been helping him acknowledges it.

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I like the way The Reincarnation of Peter Proud handles this. First, Peter is repulsed by kissing her; he knows it could be considered incestuous.  Then, Sam reminds him how inappropriate it is.  But the relationship is really just part of the process of Peter discovering himself.  Although he is the reincarnation of Jeffrey Curtis, that isn’t who he is now.  I think falling in love with Ann is what helps him eventually accept what is happening to him and reconcile the inner turmoil.

(Spoiler alert.) Not that Peter is going to be around very much longer to have to reconcile anything.  Marica is alive and well, albeit an alcoholic.  Peter’s mannerisms and outbursts convince her that Jeffrey has come back to torment her.  Remember, she did kill him once.  I wonder if the ending of the movie, besides being a real downer, is making a statement that Peter’s relationship with Ann was wrong after all.  I’m certain the filmmakers wanted to take that stance, lest they be accused of saying incest is OK.

There’s one aspect I think could have elevated The Reincarnation of Peter Proud from a good movie to a great one. It’s the dreams themselves.  Early in the movie, it’s discovered through a sleep study that Peter isn’t dreaming at all.  In fact, without the release that dreaming provides on a regular basis, he could begin to have serious psychological issues.  But this concept is not fully explored.  I think it could have been more of a reason to motivate Peter.  Instead, it’s just kind of a throwaway idea.

What about the sex? As you can imagine, it’s very tame by today’s standards.  It is, however, very matter of fact.  Peter and Nora talk about it openly; apparently he’s a tiger in the sack.  The repeated scenes of the build-up to Jeffrey Curtis’s murder include nudity, both male and female.  When it finally happens between Peter and Ann, it’s actually the most tasteful scene in the movie.  What about Margot masturbating in the bathtub?  The scene actually goes a long way toward explaining her motivations and is not salacious or titillating in any way.

I still think reincarnation is a fascinating subject. Have we lived other lives?  Is our purpose on Earth to finally achieve some type of enlightenment so that we may ultimately pass to another consciousness?  Whether or not you believe in an afterlife, it’s a more comforting thought than believing we simply cease to exist.  I’m not the only one who thinks about it, it seems.  A remake of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is in development.  I don’t see how it could be as controversial as this one was forty years ago, but I sure hope it will be as entertaining.

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