SHOCK spills 9 reasons why Robert Zemeckis’ horror comedy classic is among strange cinema’s greatest achievements.
With the recent release of the film on Blu-ray via creepy catalog stalwarts Scream Factory, SHOCK thought the time was right to breakdown the key elements of Robert Zemeckis’ 1992 shock satire DEATH BECOMES HER to prove why we think it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Not greatest horror movie. Not greatest comedy. Greatest films, period.
DEATH BECOMES HER stars two of Hollywood’s most revered leading ladies, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as aging friends, one a faded actress, the other a shrinking violent who cowers in her shadow. When their volatile relationship comes to a head over their shared affections for a brilliant plastic surgeon (Bruce Willis), they seek the aid of a gorgeous witch (Isabella Rossellini), whose powerful (and pricey) potion restores their youth and grants them eternal life. But when the women’s end up dead, the discover that the serum continues to work, long after their hearts stop beating and their bodies rot.
It’s a blackly comic masterpiece and as sharp an expose of our vanity obsessed society as anything you’ll ever see on screen. It’s also plenty revolting….
1. The Music: From its first few violin scraping notes over the opening credits, we know were in good hands. Playful, macabre and full-bodied, Alan Slivestris overheated, intentionally busy and melodramatic score perfectly sets the tone for the Grand Guignol shenanigans to come. His music never stops, either and that’s a very, very good thing.
2. The Script: David Koepp and Martin Donovans original screenplay was originally imagined as a much smaller, satirical chamber piece that opened up considerably once Zemeckis brought his vision, A-list talent and big-time budget into the picture. But as FX riddled and scenery chewing as DEATH BECOMES HER can get, its always anchored by Koep and Donovans hilarious, witty and imaginative (and often, scathing) script, where lines like Ill paint your ass, you paint mine, are ludicrious and yet make absolute sense in context of the narrative and character arc. Its a perfect script, really
3. The Satire: David Cronenbergs recent skewering on the corrosive shallowness of Hollywood, MAPS TO THE STARS, was sharply observed and unsettling in its accuracy. DEATH BECOMES HER is equally on point, but nowhere near as depressing. But dont let the fact that this is a lighter comedy fool you into thinking that the film isnt totally ruthless in its satire. It doesnt pity its hollow, vain and narcissistic female leads or laugh at them, it positively despises them. The horror of the piece isnt just in the perverse special FX but in the sociopathic nature of Hawn and Streeps monstrous ghoul-women, the by-products of a sickening society. The Living Dead in Beverly Hills.
4. The Willis: Bruce Willis began his professional life in comedy, in both TVs MOONLIGHTING and Blake Edwards underrated BLIND DATE. But DIE HARD forever set him on a course as an action star, sort of dooming any future attempts at respected dramatic and comedic turns. DEATH BECOMES HER offers some of the greatest evidence of just how talented an actor Willis really is. His put-upon surgeon is the straight man of the piece and his reactions to the lunacy unfolding around him milks most of the laughs. But outside of the giggles, theres a legitimately affecting portrait of a man who made a few too many wrong turns and now thinks he kind of deserves the empty, middle-aged personal and professional Hell hes stuck in. Hes the heart of the movie.
5. The Special FX: Just before there were CGI dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK, DEATH BECOMES HER broke all the rules and invented new ones when it came to the use of digital special effects. Here, those groundbreaking, body-bending ILM computer effects blend with stunning practical work to provide the gruesome punchlines to the films endless array of gags. In a straight horror movie, these illusions would be nightmarish; the sequence where Streep falls down the stairs and cracks her neck alone is enough to make you scream. But here, watching Hawn rage at her nemesis while ignoring the gaping, water-leaking shotgun hole in her torso is so jaw-dropping and horrible that its hilarious.
6. The Look: DEATH BECOMES HER is a sumptuously produced affair, with opulent and imaginative production design by the great Rick Carter and fluid, richly detailed cinematography by one of the screens greatest DPs, Dean Cundey. Little touches, like seeing the reflection of the fireplace swell and ebb in Willis glasses are brilliant. In fact it was Cundey and Carter who devised the films key visual DNA, that of fire and mirrors.
7. The Isabella: Only a few years out of her come back in David Lynchs BLUE VELVET, DEATH BECOMES HER sees Isabella Rossellini at her hottest and most flamboyant. Here, the gorgeous Italian/Swedish actress plays the ancient witch goddess whose potion sets the movies horror in motion. Shes positively electric, with her insane costumes (designed by Joanna Johnston) that barely conceal her lovely bosom and even lovelier slinking around and purring her megalomaniacal lines in the nude, though her charming exposed posterior owning the frame actually belongs to a stunt double. I’m sure Isaballa’s rump is just as nifty.
8. The Streep and The Hawn: The main attraction of the film and with good reason. Whether in the thralls of aging misery, the swoon of voodoo youth or hacking at each others dead flesh with shovels, these two heavy-hitters are having a blast screeching and stalking and both look beautiful, whether living or falling apart dead. Streep especially shines here as an actress at the end of her tether. Her opening song and dance number is a riot and proves she really can do anything. Why more ladies dont dress up as these gorgeous ghouls on Halloween is beyond me!
9. The Director: Bringing the same infectious visionary energy and comic timing he brought to the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies and FOREST GUMP as well as the sharply observed Hitchcockian mise en scene of WHAT LIES BENEATH, looking back at Robert Zemeckis work here proves that he is one of the greatest, most innovative and underrated directors in American film history. Hes the conductor of this glorious, revolting and eminently re-watchable symphony and deserves as many accolades as we can throw at him.
Also worth noting: Watch the trailer below and listen to the TALES FROM THE CRYPT theme running in the background. Zemeckis was one of the hands in that revered (but spotty) HBO show and, as many have cited, the film feels like best TALES episode ever made.
What do you think about DEATH BECOMES HER?