People often talk about the late 1960’s being the “anything goes” peak of the 20th century but you could make a credible argument that said peak actually fell somewhere in the mid-1970’s. Alternate belief systems were at their zenith – everything from Eastern religion to LaVey-defined Satanism – and all manner of paranormal phenomena was part of everyone’s regular pop culture diet. Bigfoot, UFO’s, the Bermuda Triangle, psychic phenomena, ghosts, pyramid power, numerology, you name it. It was all fair game.
Amongst the most popular weird topics of the mid-’70s was reincarnation. Long a prominent concept in Eastern religions, it had cycled in and out of popularity throughout the 20th century as different enterprising paranormal purveyors tapped into it. It trickled down into fiction with ease, popping in everything from The Undead to Somewhere In Time.
That said, the most perfectly mid-’70s iteration of reincarnation in pop culture has to be The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud. This adaptation of the successful Max Ehrlich novel, scripted by the author, tells the tale of the title character (Michael Sarrazin), a hip young professor who finds himself bedeviled by a dream where a man is murdered by a woman in a lake. He channels the man in his dream, even speaking in his voice while experiencing the dream.
As his disbelieving girlfriend (Cornelia Sharpe) looks on, Peter delves into the paranormal for answers. As he researches his dreams, his path leads him to a sleepy New England town where he meets Marcia Curtis (Margot Kidder) – the murderous woman from his dream – and also discovers she now has an adult daughter, Ann (Jennifer O’Neill). He will discover that uncovering the tale behind his dreams has consequences for everyone involved.
Those expecting a straightforward horror flick need not apply. The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud is the kind of film that creeps up on you, teasing you with mysteries that gradually open up to reveal complex, sometimes chilling webs of cause and effect. At its heart, Ehrlich’s narrative is really a gothic melodrama brought up to ’70s standards with an array of carefully-researched paranormal mumbo-jumbo. The third act brings some undercurrents of dark, tormented sexuality to the fore, something you’d never see in a modern American feature film.
Surprisingly, the otherworldly hokum adds appeal here. The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud has picked up a charming period-piece vibe since its original release, depicting a time when delving into the unknown had a hip, sexy air of the counterculture to it. For example, there is a visit to an occult bookstore that has a quickly glimpsed meeting of LaVeyan Satanism going on in the backroom.
Director J. Lee Thompson gives the film a hip visual gloss, weaving in a lot of striking, jagged montage work as Peter researches his dream-memories, and leans into the story’s oh-so-’70s element of casual sex (even a paranormal researcher has a nubile coed lounging around his den). The film is seeded with a few shock and suspense moments that he brings a deft hand to: the opening and closing scenes are particularly effective, bolstered by Victor Kemper’s atmospheric cinematography. Also worthy of note is the excellent score from Jerry Goldsmith, built on an elegant yet eerie main theme and laced with analog synthesizer.
Thompson also gets strong performances from his cast: Sarrazin carries the film nicely as the film’s perhaps too open-minded hero, with O’Neill adding some low-key charm as his unexpected love interest. Kidder deserves special notice here: wags often poke fun at her old-age makeup here but she gives a brave, emotionally vivid turn in a demanding role that few actresses would have the guts to tackle. She was an underappreciated talent and this is one of her most fearless and compelling performances. Elsewhere, look out for Paul Hecht as a helpful paranormal expert who helps anchor the discussions of past lives and Debralee Scott as a sexy nymphet who helps Peter uncover some important clues.
In short, The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud is a delicious retro treat for anyone who wants to revisit the paranormal-friendly ’70s. By turns seductive and disturbing, this a potent slow-burner that deserves to be remembered.
Blu-Ray Notes: after a long time in home video purgatory, this title has finally been revived by Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The transfer does well by the film’s earthy visual style and frequent night scenes. Even better, the disc adds a surprising amount of extras, including a commentary from Lee Gambin.