Haunted by reoccurring dreams, young college professor Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin) comes to believe he is a reincarnated soul. In these dreams Peter relives the last moments of a previous life as Jeff Curtis (Tony Stephano), a no-good adulterous husband from 1946 who came to an untimely end at the hands of his vengeful wife, socialite Marcia Curtis (Margot Kidder). Obsessed with retracing his past life Peter ropes his skeptical girlfriend Nora (Cornelia Sharpe) and intrigued parapsychologist Dr. Sam Goodman (Paul Hecht) into his investigation. His journey finally leads him to Jeff's home in Springfield, Massachusetts. Here Peter meets and, against his better judgement, winds up falling in love with Jeff's beautiful daughter Ann (Jennifer O'Neill). Although Ann is taken with her kindly new suitor, her brittle and tormented mother Marcia finds something unsettling about Peter.
The Seventies were famously the 'Me Decade.' Frustrated with failed attempts at social change in the Sixties, people instead began to seek a change inside themselves leading to a decade of introspection, psychoanalysis and generally looking inward. This tied with a cultural fascination with the supernatural: i.e. psychic phenomena, dream analysis and reincarnation, along with a vague sense that contemporary anxieties and social problems stemmed from unresolved issues from the past and the previous generation. All these themes bubble under the surface of the flawed but eerily poetic The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, one of the stranger byproducts of Seventies Hollywood's search for the next horror bestseller in the wake of the blockbuster success of Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973).
As was the case with The Exorcist, the novel was adapted for the screen by its author: Max Ehrlich, a former journalist turned novelist and playwright who also worked in television. Among other TV shows he wrote 'The Apple' episode of the original Star Trek. With Peter Proud Ehrlich revived the reincarnation concept that took America by storm two decades before with film and literary sensations The Search for Bridey Murphy (1956) and I Lived Before (1956), adding a very Seventies dose of kinky sex. If you thought the mother-son romance in Back to the Future (1985) was a little messed up the conceit of having Peter woo his own daughter from a past life treads a fine line between kinky and queasy, no matter that Ann is played by an especially radiant Jennifer O'Neill. Indeed every female character Peter meets comes across as horny as a sex starlet in a porn film. From Nora, who openly admits she would rather Peter gave her a good seeing to than chase up all that past life malarkey, to the nubile adolescent (Debralee Scott) in denim hotpants who is visibly disappointed their chance encounter leads nowhere. The film's most infamous scene intercuts a rape flashback with a scene where future Lois Lane Margot Kidder masturbates in a bathtub, adding another nasty psychosexual layer to the story.
Ehrlich's earnest, occasionally florid romanticism gels strangely yet fittingly with the similarly off-kilter direction of veteran J. Lee Thompson. The mercurial British director already had one weird horror film to his credit with proto-Wicker Man Eye of the Devil (1967) and continued to dip his toe in the genre through Happy Birthday to Me (1981) and 10 to Midnight (1983). Here his typically schizoid approach results in an unholy though not uninteresting fusion: part psychological horror, part Ingmar Berman-esque metaphysical drama, part Douglas Sirk melodrama by way of a Harold Robbins raunch-fest. It should not work but proves genuinely compelling. Thompson utilizes jagged editing, dreamy imagery and an excellent, atmospheric score from Jerry Goldsmith combining orchestral and electronic music to convey the hero's growing sense of dislocation and unease. With his perpetually haunted face Michael Sarrazin is well cast and does wonders with the tricky role of passive, sensitive Peter Proud - the total opposite of his boorish past self Jeff Curtis. If the film gives no clear sense of what Peter's ultimate goal might be Sarrazin does well to hint that ultimately the hero is equally uncertain. Amidst a plethora of polished supporting performances Margot Kidder is especially convincing and unnerving in a tricky role, made up to look significantly older even though in real life she was six months younger than Jennifer O'Neil. Moving at its own gentle, self-contented pace, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud may alienate modern horror fans expecting more visceral fare. The film builds to a shock climax that while satisfying also lets the filmmakers off the hook when it comes to addressing the impact of such an event on the remaining characters. Yet the cumulative sense of cyclical, inescapable doom lingers along with the last image.