The Reincarnation of Peter Proud
What is it movies have against reincarnation? Sure, they’ll feature it every so often, but the associations will invariably be nasty. If it isn’t documenting some deplorable experience (Audrey Rose), it’s an overpowering whiff of metaphysical incest. At least in Chances Are, Robert Downey Jr is aghast at the prospect of a liaison with his “daughter”; Peter Proud, in contrast, is all for it, making it very difficult to feel anything even vaguely sympathetic for his ultimate fate.
Peter Proud: That voice must have belonged to the man that I was.
Nothing about J Lee Thompson’s picture really lands, however. It’s so blunderingly obvious in its design that it has to lead with the hook in the title: this is about reincarnation, folks. So as to get those New Age hippy kids attending, even though The Reincarnation of Peter Proud veers more towards supernatural horror than fantasy.
It’s certainly neither affirmative nor comforting with regard to the metaphysical, and one has to wonder what demons Max Ehrlich was wrestling with, such that he came up with the likes of this (based on his novel) and The Savage is Loose. That was the heart-warming tale of shipwreck survivors, the twelve-year old son of George C Scot and Trish Van Devere getting the hots for mom by the time he hits manhood (Scott directed the thing and had the temerity to blanche at the ratings board’s unease over the subject matter: surprisingly, they slapped an R on it). Earlier, he also wrote less-than-loved Star Trek episode The Apple, and later returned to past lives with another novel, under another does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title, Reincarnation in Venice.
Nora: Take it from me. When you’re dead, you’re dead. Period.
Lecturer Peter (Michael Sarrazin) is haunted by recurring dreams of being bludgeoned to death with an oar (by the woman who turns out to wife his wife from a former life, Margot Kidder’s Marcia). He calls on university doctor and parapsychologist Sam Goodman (Paul Hecht), studying sleep and dreams – all the rage in the 70s – but hypnosis provides him no relief. Then, following a fortuitous dream/reality association in a TV documentary, he heads to Massachusetts with his reluctant, disbelieving and nagging girlfriend Nora (Cornelia Sharpe). She soon has enough, leaving Peter open to meeting Ann (Jennifer O’Neill); it turns out Peter was married to her mother Marcia in 1946 when he was sleazebag bastard Jeff Curtis.
Peter Proud: The hell with Freud. Alright, maybe she was my daughter in some previous life. But she isn’t now!
Obviously, the first thing you do when you learn you were the reincarnation of a lowdown rat is double down on it and start wooing your daughter from a past life. Peter’s motives are as dubious as Sarrazin’s untrustworthy performance, initially refraining from passionately embracing Ann but soon succumbing to her charms. Damningly, he never once shows any inclination towards openness about what he has learned, leaving Marcia, a wizened – well, Kidder in a grey wig and some face powder – old soak, to grow in suspicion and sozzled delirium.
Ann: You’re a very strange man. But a nice one.
It seems it isn’t enough that the movie should be revelling in its assault on the sanctity of the incarnatory process. It also has a penchant for rape-sploitation. One repeated sequence sees Jeff, having raped Marcia, crudely inform her he’s going for a swim to “wash your stink off”; it’s this that stirs her to clobbering him with an oar, in Crystal Lake, of all places (at one point in his investigations, Peter is told a folktale of how Jeff’s “private parts had been hacked clean off with a buck knife”. This at least we’re spared). Peter gets a bit ragey with Marcia when she confronts him, and she flees home. Where she promptly descends into the tub and has a masturbatory reminisce of being raped all those years ago. Yes, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud just keeps getting more and more tasteful.
On a very basic level, the movie is frustratingly inert. It’s beset by a half score/half spooky early electronic dissonance from Jerry Goldsmith that may cause your ears to bleed, if the hacky, leaden dialogue hasn’t already. None of the performances are much cop, and several of them downright annoying. There’s copious time to mull Peter’s motives, but Sarrazin’s so uninteresting and pallid that he irks rather than intrigues.
Sam Goodman: A very unprofessional shiver just ran up my spine.
Feasibly, the running time might have been coaxed into something more satisfying with some metaphysical rumination, but the approach is strictly four-square. Dr Goodman is a blundering jackass, by all accounts, not even remotely hip to the scene. He professes an open mind on the reincarnation subject, noting famous types who were believers – Ben Franklin, Voltaire, Theroux, Gandhi – and quoting some Edgar Cayce at Peter (about those one tends to re-meet through lives; the motive can be love persisting, enmity that must be overcome or obligation that must be met).
Sam Goodman: Look, you are a one-man revelation. A living miracle.
When Goodman meets with Peter again, he presents no moral qualms, but is concerned only that he has discovered “the prophet of a new religion” because people will realise they have a second chance at living. Is he really that naïve? I mean, apart from all the countries in the world that believe in reincarnation as part of their religion anyway, why does he think this still-unproveable case will yield any change? Perhaps Goodman’s also conducting self-administered LSD experiments on the quiet. (“You were chosen to deliver a message, and you’ve decided to keep it to yourself”).
There’s an interesting scene early on where Peter visits an occult bookstore, one which elicits the first mention of Cayce (so Ehrlich did some research, but there’s no mention of the Law of One here. Peter’s very much Sons of Belial, evidently). A potential customer mentions her husband loves unidentified flying objects and asks “What have you got on interplanetary movements?” (someone needs to give her a book on Flat Earth). Peter’s told they have lots of books on reincarnation as “everybody’s into it these days”. All of which is fine.
Marcia: You have screwed your own daughter, you filthy pig!
However, just before this, Peter’s looking around and sees a meeting in a red-lit backroom where Sam Laws (credited as Satan’s Disciple) is urging the assembled “Give your soul to Satan!” What are we to make of this? That the New Age movement is a front for Satanism? That all interest in the occult or esoteric ultimately leads to the same kind of worship? That the Tavistock Institute has got its claws in any kind of spiritual seeking that isn’t officially condoned (Christianity)? This was the early-70s, of course, and as Dave McGowan documented, there was a burgeoning “acceptable” satanic fringe to all the hippy free-for-all shenanigans, with the Church of Satan showing up and the Process Church; Sammy Davis Jr and Liberace were popular Satanists. And as is quite clear from The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, if you start looking into this kind of New Age thing, you’ll more than likely end up pursuing congress with your daughter!
Peter’s dream remembrances include montage shots of architectural spires of the sort some suggest represent a atmospheric electricity transmitters. Quite possibly neither here nor there; I might be dubious Thompson, a workmanlike director at the best of times (The Guns of Navarone is his greatest claim to fame, along with the first Cape Fear) was aware of their potential significance, but it seems all Hollywood directors were/are required to be freemasons. Which is evidently no guarantee of taste. Every choice Thompson makes in telling this story is on the lumbering side, but by all accounts, it’s a good fit for Ehrlich’s pulp-exploitation approach (there’s actually a decent scene where Peter goes to the police station and lingers, playing out the possible consultation at the desk in his mind via voiceover, before deciding against proceeding because he’d sound like a loony. But they’re very thin on the ground).
Marcia: Damn you, Jeff. Why did you come back?
David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker were angling to remake this about a decade ago, but I can’t imagine why. Perhaps they’d have included more of the novel. Apparently, Peter/Jeff was previously a pyramid builder in it, which might connect to the Cayce referencing; he injured his hip (shrapnel in the movie) and Ann/a princess ordered that he be weighted down so he died quickly in the river. All very grimdark: reincarnation’s a bad thing, you know. Eternal recurrence. Steer well clear of it! Never mind. At least Hollywood is able to have a bit of fun with walk-ins. Those walk-ins are so whacky!