When Death Becomes Her Was released, it’s reception was hinged almost entirely on ground-breaking CGI that did things like stick a hole in Goldie Hawn’s belly and spin Meryl Streep’s head around backwards. Audiences couldn’t believe what they were seeing and pretty well everything else in the movie was incidental. Now an ambitious Vine can top the once show-stopping digital effects, so the flick has pretty much been forgotten. Fair enough. A lost masterpiece this ain’t. However, Death Becomes Her is a pretty amusing oddity in Robert Zemeckis’ career. It came when his movies were at the center of the zeitgeist (between Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forest Gump to be precise) and by merely being a modest hit seemed liked a lonely blotch on his track record.
The movie came out of the same period that Zemeckis was supervising Tales From The Crypt and feels so much like an unofficial blockbuster episode of the series (with all of the strengths and weaknesses that implies) that it’s strange the Cryptkeeper didn’t pop up for an introduction. Though far from perfect, there are so few horror movies ever produced on this scale (especially horror/comedies) that there’s something kind of admirable about this oddball effort. For that reason alone, it’s certainly a welcome entry Shout/Scream Factory’s library of forgotten genre efforts.
With the exception of dripping gore, all of the essential elements of a Tales From The Crypt episode are in play. The characters are manipulative a-holes in need of ironic comeuppance, there’s a morality play hammered home as hard as the horror, the cast are all slumming movie stars, their acting is deliberately hammy, the tone is high camp, and the humour is morbid. Meryl Steep plays an aging starlet married to a plastic surgeon (Bruce Willis) in a lifelong battle with an equally vain Beverly Hills nightmare played by Goldie Hawn. When a vampy Isabella Rosellini shows up with a magic potion offering eternal youth/life, Streep and Hawn’s battle turns supernatural involving all sorts of elastic body contortions and cartoonish gaping holes. It’s pretty simple stuff with an obvious satirical slant on Hollywood’s youth and beauty obsessions, but for those able to stomach Death Becomes Her’s specifically shrill comedic tone, there’s plenty of fun to be had.
The film represents a certain brand of Robert Zemeckis comedy that he grew out of as his career moved on. It’s a type of gently dark slapstick, involving mugging, physical business, and spectacle amped up to a ludicrous degree and flavoured with little hints of satire. The director got some great movies out of that tone like the live action cartoons Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back To The Future, and the ever-underrated Used Cars. But it also led to the sporadically successful 1941, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and Death Becomes Her. This one mixes morality horror, the ratatat insult comedy of classic screwball, and the gothic Hollywood camp of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane. Not all those tones sync up, but they are all insane enough for Zemeckis and the gang to go as far over the top as they can manage with no safety net.
Streep and Hawn are having so much fun doing their Baby Jane routine that it becomes infectious, while Zemeckis/Dean Cundey’s cameras race around a series of lavish sets and effects to ensure every second of screentime is overstimulating. Unfortunately, the script by David Koepp and Martin Donovan is more amusing than funny, so the laughs all come from performance and spectacle. Obviously, that’s a mixed bag, but at least with more hits than misses. Bruce Willis is unfortunately miscast with his lowkey throwaway delivery replaced by limb-flailing and whining to embarrassing effect, while the vanity satire is overplayed to the point of annoyance. Some of the CGI is awkward by today’s standards, but for the most part the effects are good and the eye-candy is unrelenting. When the movie is kicking, there’s a certain cynical morbid insanity in play that’s a hell of a lot of fun. When it’s stumbling, it’s at least interesting in a “how the hell did this get made” kind of way. If nothing else, you’ve got to give Zemeckis credit for using his immense power at the time to launch a movie only he could get made on a scale only he would have imagined. There will certainly never be another studio movie like this one. Whether or not that’s a good thing is really just a matter of taste.
While this Scream Factory release is certainly well produced, the disc is as much of a mixed bag as the film. The transfer features some really grainy and unstable sequences, some excusable because of dated optical effects and some (like the muddy opening credits) are certainly not. Thankfully, the transfer is gorgeously vibrant and detailed more often than not. It’s just strange to think that this company’s recent transfers for Demon Knight and Bordello Of Blood were so vastly superior despite being from the same studio and era, especially when Death Becomes Her was a far bigger hit than both combined. Oh well and least the audio doesn’t disappoint and there are some decent extras.
The big new feature is a 25 minute-documentary featuring interviews with Zemeckis, Koepp, Dean Cundey and a few other crew members (don’t expect movie stars). Everyone recalls the production fondly and share stories of how they couldn’t believe the movie got made. It’s a fun chat and clearly everyone is quite fond of the film and pleased that anyone cared to ask about it all these years later. If you want to hear from Streep, Willis, and Hawn, there’s a vintage 10-minute making-of featurette from the set that’s actually kind of fun even though it’s so dated and promotional (there are some amusing peaks into the crude way ILM invented now standard digital effects and the whole thing wraps up with the Tales From The Crypt theme in a way that really rams home that this should have been the first feature length spin-off of the HBO series). After that, there’s the usual still gallery and trailer. So not much, but given the level of stars involved in the production, it’s safe to say this was the best the Shout team could have done.
Does This Deserve a Spot on Your Dork Shelf?
I have to admit to questioning that this movie should have been released under the Scream Factory label, but after seeing it again, it feels right. Though deeply flawed, this is a wacko horror comedy that’s well worth checking out. Sure, it’ll never be considered a classic or even cult classic, but Death Becomes Her is such a odd and unique concoction that it’s well worth checking out for any fans of the stars, the director, or HBO’s Tales From The Crypt series (which god-willing, Shout Factory will slip onto Blu-ray one of these days).
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