DEATH BECOMES HER: When Technophilia Weds Slapstick

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.

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