Retro Movie Review: Death Becomes Her (1992)

death becomes her 2What do you get, when you decide to tell a tale where money is no object, vanity and ego have no limits, and revenge knows no bounds?

You “pretty” much get Robert Zemeckis’s modern Gothic horror-comedy from 1992, DEATH BECOMES HER.

Co-written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp earlier on in their collaborative relationship, Zemeckis was riding high on the crest of a wave of success when he decided to take it on, having already put out ROMANCING THE STONE, BACK TO THE FUTURE and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. Visual Effects Supervisor Ken Ralston, one of the leaders at ILM (now LucasArts), had his work cut out for him. CGI effects were still yet in their infancy, and many of the gags that DEATH demanded pushed the envelope, as they were of a brand of cinematic trickery that had never been attempted before.

As it stands today, watching this and thinking of the many advances in the field, (the magnificent dragon effects of GAME OF THRONES for one excellent example), the effects work does look a little dated by today’s standards. But what makes this a standard classic that fans can come back to time and again is the clever, blackly funny script, Zemeckis’s stylish direction, and the game performances of three of film’s most capable and talented actors, all working in tandem together here for the very first time.

You can think of DEATH BECOMES HER as a really well-developed, extended version of TALES OF THE CRYPT, (a series that Zemeckis also helped produce), but with less schtick, less gore and more mordant wit. “Frenemies” from childhood, severely insecure and neurotic film and stage star Madeline Ashton (MERYL STREEP) and equally introverted would-be author Helen Sharp (GOLDIE HAWN) have been bitterly competitive with one another, with Madeline usually coming out the winner, always managing to steal Helen’s beaus from her.

death becomes her 1It all comes to a brutal head, when Helen’s current fiance, the schlubby-but-brilliant plastic surgeon, Dr. Ernest Menville (BRUCE WILLIS, in one of the most atypical roles of his entire career) falls under ‘the Ashton spell’. Literally marrying Ernest right out from under her, Madeline causes her friend to transform into a psychotic, obese cat-lady, whose sole obsession of taking her revenge on her homewrecking BFF sends Helen to the nuthouse. Which is where she finally makes a ‘breakthrough’….

Meanwhile, Ernest and Madeline are living a Beverly Hills married lifestyle straight out of an Albee play. He’s become a henpecked, alcoholic loser whose surgical skills have so deteriorated, he operates mainly on cadavers now, making them look more ‘presentable’. When she’s not doing really bad musicals based on Tennessee Williams plays, (the film’s opening number is hysterically unforgettable), she’s dallying with much younger lovers in a desperate attempt to hold onto some kind of illusion, that her once-radiant looks are not failing her.

After a couple of really bad episodes that remind her of how futile her efforts to hold onto youth are, Madeline encounters the mysterious Mr. Chagall (Ian Ogilvy), who in turn directs her to Lisle Von Rhuman (a radiant and sublimely over-the-top Isabella Rosellini), who has the answers, it seems, to all of her problems. But what Lisle has to offer is much, much more expensive than what Madeline can write a check for. It’s also where the story begins to take its darkly funny EC Comics-style turn.

Here’s where we part company with any potential spoilers. If, like me, you’ve seen this movie about eighteen times, then you know that spoilers aren’t even possible. If you’ve never seen it, then I envy you the joys of being able to discover it for the very first time.

Playfully spanking the Hollywood conventions of beauty and vanity, and poking gleeful fun at all of the people who take both way too seriously, Donovan and Koepp’s sharp script afforded the three leads a rare opportunity to parody their own iconic images and reputations, and they dig into it with gusto. None of their characters are particularly nice people, to themselves and definitely not to each other, and are the complete antithesis of the kind of roles they usually are called upon to portray, to say the very least. Streep as a faded ingenue, Willis as a wimpy milquetoast and Hawn as a psychotic, revenge-driven femme fatale had the time of their lives here, and it shows.

Death-Becomes-HerZemeckis helms the proceedings accordingly, calling back to everything from old Hollywood Technicolor melodramas to ‘hag horror’ pics like WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, and HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, and does it with the same sure sense of style and twisted humor that made his other like-minded efforts like ROGER RABBIT, a delight to watch, even in repeated viewings. Favorite John Carpenter DP Dean Cundey matches him frame-for-frame, and frequent musical collaborator Alan Silvestri provides a great score that’s kind of a wink/nudge homage to Bernard Herrmann by way of William Lava, (the composer for many of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes features, appropriately enough.)

Scream Factory has done their usual stellar job of transferring this to Blu-Ray, where – dated opticals aside – the film looks as gorgeous as its stars do…even when for certain reasons, they don’t. And though the extras are kind of sparse by comparison to other releases, it’s still a kick to have Zemeckis, Cundey, Koepp and producer Steve Starkey discussing the making of this now horror-comedy staple.

DEATH BECOMES HER gets a definite four-out-of-five stars from this reviewer, plus a strong recommendation for all readers to add this to your DVD/BR libraries in lieu of just renting it. (You can thank me later.)

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