Color, 1975, 105 mins. 39 secs.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Starring Michael Sarrazin, Jennifer O'Neill, Margot Kidder, Cornelia Sharpe, Paul Hecht, Tony Stephano, Norman Burton
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
An eerie and haunting entry in the onslaught of '70s horror novel adaptations, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is, like its title character, a tricky subject that's hard to pin down. Though obviously supernatural in nature, it tackles its subject in a way that has no interest in outright terrifying its audience. Instead it goes for melancholy tragedy, with director J. Lee Thompson refining the fractured, experimental editing techniques of his prior horror film, the underrated Eye of the Devil, to tell a story of fate and the dangers of confronting the demons of the past.
Based on a 1973 novel by Max Ehrlich (who wrote the screenplay himself), the story charts the journey of Peter Proud (Sarrazin), a California college professor haunted by recurring dreams of a woman named Marcia (Kidder) using an oar to kill a man named Jeff (Stephano) while he takes a nude swim at night. A sleep clinic provides little help in unraveling these visions, but when he sees a strangely familiar Massachusetts location in a TV documentary, Peter packs up and decides to pay a visit along with his casual romantic partner, Nora (Sharpe). Upon arrival he retraces the memory fragments of his dreams and comes into contact with the much older Marcia and her daughter, Ann (O'Neill). However, his quest to put these dreams to rest will end up having truly sinister consequences.
Films about reincarnation weren't exactly a rarity around this time, with other titles like Audrey Rose, Heaven Can Wait, and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever mining similar territory of past lives impacting on the present. What sets this one apart is its strong focus on sexuality as a complex emotional trigger, with frequent nudity and love scenes acting as transition points that mingle uneasily with the act of violence at the center of Peter's memories. It's still an unsettling experience with elements of incest and rape added to the mix, with Kidder delivering a powerhouse performance that culminates in a bathtub / sexual trauma flashback scene that no viewer has ever forgotten. The rest of the actors have less to work with (O'Neill in particular), but Thompson keeps a firm hand on the material and manages to evoke a potent atmosphere with some of the darkest, creepiest night scenes you'll ever see. Also invaluable is the unnerving and sometimes beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith (in the second of four Thompson collaborations), featuring wild electronic shadings that would become his main modus operandi in the '80s.
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud was one of a handful of theatrical releases for Bing Crosby Productions following the success of Willard and Walking Tall, with theatrical releasing handled at the time by American International Pictures. A VHS release from Vestron in 1986 was hopelessly dull, colorless, and muddy, which had a disastrous effect on the film's reputation for several years. After that it vanished for decades (apart from a shoddy Korean bootleg DVD yanked from the VHS) and became one of the great lost holy grail titles of '70s horror alongside Willard and the still elusive Arnold, though rare repertory theatrical screenings served as a reminder of how powerful the film could be under the right circumstances. Fortunately miracles do happen, and in 2018 the film was given a rebirth on home video from Kino Lorber on Blu-ray and DVD with a fresh 4K scan of the original negative from rights holder Paramount. Anyone familiar with the film will breathe a sigh of relief right from the outset as it now looks detailed and colorful, with no attempts made to soften the grain, teal it up, or make it look more like a modern title. The appearance looks very close to circulating theatrical prints but with more visible detail throughout, and the DTS-HD MA English audio is also much richer and clearer than before. The negative isn't quite in immaculate condition (there's a light scratch around the 17-minute mark, for example), but overall it's in great shape and far better than anything we've had before. Optional English subtitles are also included.
The big extra here is a new audio commentary by Lee Gambin, who sketches out the history of Bing Crosby Productions, ties this to Audrey Rose (of course), and enthusiastically hops all over the pop culture map with thoughts on such wide-ranging topics as Jon-Erik Hexum, What's the Matter with Helen, Cujo, and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. An alternate, much softer version of the bathtub scene (with alternate footage) is included from the Spanish Super 8 version, also playable in a side-by-side comparison; other bonuses include two radio spots (30s and 60s), a TV spot, the U.S. and German trailers, and four very extensive, separate galleries for international posters and lobby cards, international promotional material, international home video releases, and promotional stills, accompanied by selections from Goldsmith's score.
Reviewed on May 18, 2018.