Sonja O’Hara’s Mid-Century opens in the era of its title – 1963, to be precise – with a montage of well-dressed housewives cleaning in their homes. The setting is the suburbia of (fictional) Mandarin, California, whose houses, designed by local architect Frederick Banner (Stephen Lang) in the late Fifties, are the aspirational envy of the postwar period, at least if you are white, male and middle-class. Yet as newcomers Anthony Waxtan (James Gaudioso) and his wife Joanne (Ellen Toland) observe, there is, even for these times of gender inequality when men go out to work and women stay at home, something ‘off’ about Frederick, who lords about as if he owns the neighbourhood and everything in it, including all the wives. By the time this prologue is over, it will be made clear in no uncertain terms that widower Frederick, far from being merely a creepy voyeur, is more than willing to take what he wants, even if doing so means rape and murder.
A credit sequence shows off mid-century homes and society through a series of sleek monochrome stills that have been altered to have a subtle 3D effect. This is nostalgia with a Lynchian double edge to it, as all the smiling families and attractive surfaces come with the the suggestion of hidden, shadowy depths. The rest of Sonja O’Hara’s film will be set for the most part in present-day Mandarin, where the beautiful ‘Banner homes’ are now coveted icons of a bygone, supposedly better age. The contrast between the Waxtans from 1963, and the couple now contemplating moving into one of these homes, could not be starker. Far from being a housewife, Alice (Chelsea Gilligan) is a working MD, and hopes that the promise of a house built by Frederick will be enough to persuade her husband Tom Levin (Shane West), himself an architect and admirer of Frederick’s work, to leave the San Diego firm where he currently works and to start up again here instead.
Frederick is long dead, and times have certainly changed. Alice has kept her own family name for professional reasons rather than assuming her husband’s (indeed both her forename, and her surname Dodgeson, associate her with another literary figure who famously fell down a rabbit hole). She is Hispanic, which might in decades gone by have restricted her to the rôle of maid in this neighbourhood. And she places her own working life above Tom’s. The dynamic between this couple exposes a shift in gender relations over the last half century or so. Still, in certain respects little has changed. Alice wants a new job in the Mandarin hospital because of the constant sexual harassment she has had to endure at the hands of her older male colleagues in San Diego – and she is well aware of how much harder she, as a woman, has had to work to get to where she is than her husband ever has. In her everyday interactions with men, from fellow doctors to the police, she faces unwelcome advances, condescending dismissals and barely masked misogynies – and while for Tom, the Banner Home that they have temporarily rented is the main attraction of being in Mandarin, Alice herself is put off by all the weird paintings – by Emil Larson (Bruce Dern), local artist, occultist and former friend of Frederick – that decorate the walls with unsettling objectifications of their female subjects.
So this home, modernised with cameras and alarms but still boasting all the now retro stylings of the Fifties, is a sort of time warp, bridging the past and present – even as Tom, left to his own devices in the house while Alice does tryout shifts at the hospital, is simultaneously seduced by the domestic paradigms of the Fifties, and having to decide whether he is willing to support, and create a new future with, the wife to whom he has not always been faithful in the past. At the same time, Tom’s explorations of this new (yet old) environment will reveal that it is not just any ‘Banner home’, but the former house of Frederick himself – and he will also get the distinct impression that there is another presence (Mike Stern, also the film’s screenwriter) or two (Sarah Hay) in this residence where Tom is supposedly all by himself.
Mid-Century begins as a variant on Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975) or Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling (2022), showing women caught in a Fifties-style prisonhouse of patriarchy – and it is also allegorising the whole contemporary MAGA movement with its backward-looking ideology and yearning for the values that preceded the sexual revolution of the late Sixties. Frederick had styled himself the Aurantiaco Rex or ‘Orange King’, a phrase which aligns him to the famously orange-tinged Donald Trump – former POTUS and leader in chief to the MAGA cult – whose rule led to Supreme Court appointments that have rowed back women’s hard earned rights by decades.
Yet this will also turn out to be a haunted house story, as the ‘Banner Home’ proves to have buried secrets, skeletons in the closet, and housebound spirits who long variously to immortalise the past in the present, or to escape its oppressive grip. This paranormal aspect of the film, at first merely an unsettling and disorienting background detail, will eventually come to the fore, becoming ever more shrill and unhinged. Make no mistake, by the end Mid-Century, with its murderous conspiracies, its psychometric flashbacks, its body-hopping ghosts and its blood wolf moon rituals, goes utterly, unapologetically batshit – but all this jaw-dropping, supernatural sensationalism will give Tom, and us with him, a unique perspective on the kind of everyday sexism and abuse that hold his wife down, and will reveal the way that even the most appealing of domestic situations can readily become a trap. Tom may have found his dream home – indeed his forever home – but he may likewise never be able to leave. After all, perhaps we are all still stuck in the mid-century, unable to escape its baleful influence.
strap: Sonja O’Hara’s unhinged, allegorical ghost story disinters the past’s subjugation of women from a haunted house’s foundations
© Anton Bitel