If you want­ed to define the career of film­mak­er Robert Zemeckis by using two poles to set the oppo­site extremes of his inter­ests, those two poles would like­ly be “technophil­ia” and “slap­stick.”  The technophile side has come to dom­i­nate the per­cep­tion of his out­put: the meld­ing of ani­ma­tion and live action in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the com­put­er assist­ed merg­ing of new and old footage in Forrest Gump and the 3-D CGI fix­a­tion DeathBH-bluexplored in films like The Polar Express, Beowulf and The Walk.

All that makes it easy to for­get his roots in wild slap­stick humor: he co-wrote 1941 and made one of the great sleep­er com­e­dy faves of the ‘80s with Used Cars.  You can see that wild comic streak pop up in films like Back To The Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but it ulti­mate­ly became much milder and is most­ly down­played in his mod­ern work.   An inter­est­ing excep­tion to this is Death Becomes Her, a wild mix­ture of hor­ror and satire that allowed Zemeckis to meld his technophile and slap­stick impuls­es into one free­wheel­ing, visu­al­ly stun­ning com­bo.

The sto­ry­line, con­coct­ed by Bad Influence scribes David Koepp and Martin Donovan,  focus­es on a love tri­an­gle in ritzy Hollywood.  Madeline (Meryl Streep) is a fad­ed Hollywood star who lives a mis­er­able exis­tence with her hen­pecked plas­tic sur­geon-turned-under­tak­er hub­by Ernest (Bruce Willis).  Madeline stole Ernest away from her best friend/eternal rival Helen (Goldie Hawn) long ago, which led her to go crazy and fade into obscu­ri­ty.

DeathBH-01However, Helen turns up in the present day look­ing stun­ning and mak­ing plain her designs on Ernest.  In des­per­a­tion, the beau­ty-obsessed Madeline turns to the mys­te­ri­ous Lisle (Isabella Rossellini)  and takes a potion that promis­es eter­nal youth.  The price tag is that one must take care of their body, which becomes prob­lem­at­ic when Helen unleash­es a lethal revenge plan.  The results don’t work out in a way that any­one expects, lead­ing to a bar­rage of elab­o­rate spe­cial effects and the dark­est slap­stick humor that you’ll see in a PG-13-rat­ed film.

Death Becomes Her feels like a fea­ture-length install­ment of Tales From The Crypt, which hap­pens to be a show that Zemeckis was a pro­duc­er on.  That beloved t.v. item is a mighty influ­ence on both the psy­cho-screw­ball tone and the wild pro­to-CGI effects used here: it’s the kind of movie where peo­ple get their necks bro­ken and bowl­ing ball-sized holes blown through their bod­ies but keep on bick­er­ing with each oth­er.  The wild con­tent is used to skew­er the altered real­i­ty and youth/beauty fix­a­tions of DeathBH-02Beverly Hills soci­ety.  It doesn’t break new ground in that regard — but the visu­al treat­ment def­i­nite­ly does.

This kind of dark-humor/macabre-FX mix­ture that could top­ple the wrong way in either direc­tion but Death Becomes Her man­ages to keep it going through to the end cred­its.  The script is gen­uine­ly wit­ty and unique its ghoul­ish approach to satire.  Zemeckis revives the old Used Cars spir­it of barbed humor in his direc­tion while also let­ting his technophile side run wild: it’s beau­ti­ful­ly shot, with elab­o­rate, pseudo-DePalma track­ing shots by Dean Cundey, and ben­e­fits from excel­lent spe­cial effects that mix Dick Smith make­up designs with ILM visu­al effects.  Even by present day stan­dards, the­se effects hold up beau­ti­ful­ly.

The one real crit­i­cism could be that sto­ry seems a lit­tle rushed in spots, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the sec­ond half.  This is a reflec­tion of some elab­o­rate edit­ing done after the first cut, includ­ing the excis­ing of a major sub­plot involv­ing TrDeathBH-03acey Ullman.  That said, the sheer pro­fes­sion­al­ism keeps things from get­ting too bumpy, not to men­tion an ace cast.  Streep has a ball here throw­ing aside her usu­al dra­mat­ic fare to play a nasty man-eater with acidic wit and Hawn match­es her nice­ly, show­ing a gift for wild-eyed, mean com­e­dy that she rarely explores.

Willis is also quite good as the man in the mid­dle, play­ing again­st type as a nerdy neb­bish who blows up to epic lev­els of neu­rotic hys­te­ria.  Rossellini is also fun (and eye-pop­ping) as a scant­i­ly-dressed witch.  Elsewhere, Ian Ogilvy steals a few sce­nes as an amus­ing­ly effete spa own­er and Sydney Pollack is hilar­i­ous in a one-scene role as a doc­tor who shifts from unflap­pable cool to qui­et ter­ror when con­front­ed with the grue­some results of Madeline’s beau­ty reg­i­men.

In short, Death Becomes Her is a mem­o­rable blend of Zemeckis’s comedic and FX-fuelled cre­ative instincts meld­ed into one dark­ly humor­ous mix­ture.  Anyone who loves the more humor-dri­ven Tales From The Crypt episodes or the skew­er­ing of Americana’s dark side in Used Cars is like­ly to get a kick out of this.

DeathBH-04Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory just reis­sued this film on blu-ray.  The trans­fer is solid, bring­ing respectable lev­els of col­or and detail to this FX-inten­sive film, and both 5.1 and 2.0 loss­less stereo mix­es are includ­ed.  The 5.1 mix makes nice use of the film’s Alan Silvestri score.

In terms of extras, the major inclu­sion is a new, 25-min­ute inter­view fea­turet­te that includes Zemeckis, Cundey, Koepp and a few oth­er key above-the-line crew mem­bers.  It reveals how such an odd script got such a big bud­get, the com­plex­i­ty of film­ing the big visu­al FX sce­nes and how the cast respond­ed to the material’s chal­lenges.  Also includ­ed are a trail­er, an image gallery and an above-aver­age EPK that includes Streep, Willis and Hawn crack­ing them­selves up try­ing to describe the odd ven­ture they’re in.