Canadian actor Michael Sarrazin began his career in the 1960s, taking small television roles in Toronto before scoring a contract with Universal midway through the decade. His first bit of work found him in a variety of westerns, though he gained recognition in 1969 for the Sydney Pollack-directed They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
My exposure to Sarrazin’s work came when I dug out an old Betamax tape at my grandmother’s house in the early 1980s. The worn-looking sticker read: The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, 1975. Out of sheer curiosity, I pushed it into the player and waited for something odd to appear in front of me. What followed was the first of numerous viewings over the past 30 years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this film is foreign to most of the movie-watching public.
Chances are, unless you’re a fanatic or a connoisseur of 1970s thriller, you probably never heard of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. To date, it has never seen a DVD release, but Vestron Video (80s, anyone?) did release it on VHS, which of course, is now out of print. I made my own DVDR from the store-bought VHS. It will have to suffice until a proper one finds its way to stores.
Sarrazin is Peter Proud, a college professor who suddenly experiences a wave of nightmares. His bad dreams are full of disconnected imagery, people he doesn’t recognize, and places from another time. Night becomes a source of terror for Peter, who eventually consults a psychiatrist named Sam Goodman (Paul Hecht) to help him understand why it’s all happening. Sam theorizes that Peter may be experiencing repressed memories. Peter’s ideas are much more liberal – he suggests that he has been reincarnated, and that the spectral male in his dreams, Jeff Curtis (Tony Stephano), is him in a past life. The woman in his dreams, Marsha (Margot Kidder), therefore, must be a past lover or wife. Jeff and Marsha are living in a town that Peter has never seen in reality. But more disturbing is the fact that Peter’s dreams depict Marsha in a boat, killing Jeff with the paddle as he tries to climb aboard after a late-night swim.
One evening, Peter is watching a documentary on television when the town suddenly flashes across the screen. The only information given is that it’s somewhere in Massachusetts. Peter, with his girlfriend Nora (Cornelia Sharpe) in tow, sets out on a quest to find the town. He believes that confronting his nightmares “face to face” will cause them to disappear. Sam, meanwhile, is more excited about the fame and fortune that is likely to result if Peter can prove he is the reincarnation of Jeff Curtis. Soon after the town is located, Nora becomes bored and asks Peter to drive her to the airport. He does, and then resumes the mission alone. A trip to the library for research turns up a newspaper article from the 1940s that tells of the murder (or rather, the “accidental drowning”) of Curtis, who left a widow named Marsha. Peter’s dreams know otherwise.
When he runs into the real-life Marsha, now much older, he realizes that there is also a daughter, Ann (Jennifer O’Neill), whom he fathered as his past life counterpart Jeff. Peter becomes close to Ann and begins to develop feelings for her (knowing, in some strange way, that it’s slightly incestuous). As Marsha notices similarities between Peter and her late husband, she becomes increasingly wary of his true intentions, while Ann finds him to be harmless and charismatic. Knowing that his potential mother-in-law/ex-wife is a murderess, Peter must decide to live as himself and keep Ann, or as the man he used to be and lose everything that he has “already” lost.
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is more suspense than horror. The score (composed by Jerry Goldsmith) is haunting, and hearing it often transports me back to the first time I watched the movie.
I thought the casting was perfect, but I‘ve seen the film so many times that I couldn’t imagine anyone else in those roles. Margot Kidder is great as the woman hiding a dark secret. Some years back, I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Kidder at a film convention, and while everyone else was asking her about Superman, I caught her off guard by asking about The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. The only thing she really had to say was: “Oh yeah, that was a strange one, wasn’t it?” Well yes, in a way, this is a strange movie, only because it requires us to ignore our perception of reality. It’s just as much fantasy as it is thriller.
Sarrazin is very effective as a man troubled by his past existence. There is something slightly vulnerable about him, probably because he’s not “manly” in the traditional sense. In fact, he’s scrawny and fragile in appearance, and the slimming 70s bell-bottoms do little to help. What Sarrazin exudes as Peter Proud, however, is not meant to be anything physical. He is mysterious and troubled; he’s friendly and well-liked by all, but none of his acquaintances truly understand much about him. This is not intentional on his part; rather, it’s part of an unconscious means of going within himself. Perhaps he subconsciously recalls his past life, and his quiet exterior is more the result of that old world ghost hiding from a world it doesn’t comprehend.
It’s also important to note that this film was based on a book of the same name by Max Ehrlich, which I own and have read. There are a few differences in the book, but for the most part, the film closely follows the original story. The book can be found fairly cheap online, so if you like to read, I would suggest picking it up. It’s not extremely long and it’s a nice precursor to the movie.
Lastly, there has been rumblings for years about a remake. I personally don’t see the point, but Hollywood would shrivel and die if not for the occasional rehash. As far as I can tell, Director David Fincher and Screenwriter Andrew Kevin (who collaborated on 1995’s Se7en), are planning to re-team and modernize the story, using the original novel as their basis.