Blu-Ray Review: Death Becomes Her
Growing up in suburbia, I wasn’t schooled much in the ways of “dark comedies.” Most of my entertainment either came from the world of animation, or family-friendly blockbusters like Star Wars, or Back to the Future.
Probably my first encounter with a dark comedy, was when previews for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice enticed me to want to see it…only for my 8-year-old mind to wonder what I had wandered into, seeing people tear their faces off, and pin-toothed snakes terrorize a wealthy family.
It would be some years before I could really get into, or understand dark comedies (such as Dr Strangelove!). One of the earliest I saw, happened to be by director Robert Zemeckis, who had captured my youthful attentions with The Back to the Future Trilogy, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
I can’t recall exactly when I finally saw Death Becomes Her, but its imagery and storyline was one that just plopped right down inside my head, and never left.
Around the film’s 20 year anniversary in 2012, I lamented in a blog posting, how a proper Blu-Ray release, was still out of the grasp of the average American. As it stood, Universal Studios had only released a bare-bones, pan-and-scan version on DVD, that cropped off the sides of the main imagery. The only way to view it on widescreen, was with the film’s laserdisc release.
Fortunately, help came in the form of distributor Shout Factory in 2015. Under their Scream Factory horror- release banner, we finally have the film for the 21st century!
The film follows three people: Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) , Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), and Ernest Mennville (Bruce Willis).
Madeline has been an egocentric ‘friend’ to Helen ever since they were young, and also stole several of her childhood friend’s boyfriends…including Ernest, who eventually became Madeline’s husband.
However, as time has gone by, Madeline’s acting career has fizzled, along with her looks. Ernest, who once held potential to be a surgeon, is now little more than an alcoholic undertaker.
Madeline falls into further depression when she finds out that Helen has written a book, and seems to have regained her youthful appearance!
Pretty much at the end of her rope, Madeline takes the advice of a doctor, and visits a mysterious woman named Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), who is willing to give her a special potion…for a price…
Thoughts on the Film
Following a successful (if exhausting) directing run from 1985-1990 (in which he directed The Back to the Future Trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Robert Zemeckis’ first film of the 1990’s, plays with its dark comedy storyline, by touching on the culture that most likely was within walking distance of the studio that produced it!
Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script takes the rather vapid and superficial world of beauty and Hollywood, and just relishes roasting those who struggle to hold on to their beauty, in some of the most shocking ways.
Streep’s turn as a harpy-ish diva, is probably one of the film’s highlights. Meryl seems to have some fun with the part, and I think it’s one of her more unusual roles in her filmography.
Hawn’s character is one who has harbored a grudge against Madeline for years, and is finally at a point where she is in a mental state of mind to ‘put Madeline Ashton out of her life.’ Hawn’s portrayal of the character from meek-to-vengeful, never feels as solid as what Streep brings to her character…but then again, maybe it’s to show how the character of Helen has never been able to put herself back together properly, after Madeline stole Ernest away.
Speaking Ernest, Bruce Willis’ turn as the hen-pecked undertaker, is a nice change-of-pace, from the more action-oriented roles we’ve seen him do. Willis seems to have fun playing with his character’s vocals, ratcheting them up and down depending on the craziness of the scene. But even so, one can definitely get a sense of Ernest’s frustrations, that his life seems to have reached a dead-end in a number of places, making him yearn for some meaning.
The film also seems to have the pacing of several of Zemeckis’ films (like the first Back to the Future), in which the first act slowly sets up the pins, but in the second act, he knocks them down, and grabs our attention…in this case, with a cadre of mind-blowing effects (well, for 1992, anyways).
Watching the film’s centerpiece in which Madeline and Helen just go at each other in a special-effects-heavy fight, has made me wonder what the audience was thinking back in 1992. It feels like the effects were largely the crux of the film’s marketing campaign (just look at the DVD cover art!), and left little for the audience to expect.
While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that it almost feels like an extended episode of the television series, Tales From the Crypt (of which Zemeckis would be an executive producer on!). Koepp also has fun with playing around with the character’s names (the lead’s nicknames for each other are ‘Mad,’ and ‘Hel’).
That seems to be what Death Becomes Her mainly wants to be: a funny black comedy, with the added bonus of continuing Zemeckis’ penchant to keep dabbling in advancing effects technology. This also feels like the director taking a breather after Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit, and falling back on the kinds of slapstick comedy that one recalls him and Bob Gale writing/working on almost a decade before (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1941, Used Cars). It’s basically a $55 million ‘vacation’ for the director, with him getting to continue playing with his new visual effects toys.
The Special Features
While a dream release for me would have delved into the film’s visual effects with a feature-length audio commentary over the film, Scream Factory actually plays nice, and gives us a brand-new, 25-minute retrospective. The featurette includes new interviews from director Robert Zemeckis, writer David Koepp, director of photography Dean Cundey, and many more.
Sadly, the cast is nowhere to be seen, except in a making-of featurette, that was created during the film’s production. They sit for the typical candid ‘talking head’ bits, and we even get to see some of the behind-the-scenes material, showing how they shot one of the film’s more memorable scenes.
We also have a photo gallery, and a theatrical trailer thrown in.
Menu-wise, Shout Factory shows a commitment to making the menu screen ‘pop,’ and we get some of Alan Silvestri’s music, along with full-motion clips from the film.
Probably one of the most fun ‘easter eggs’ I encountered, was when I opened up the clamshell case…only to find that the paper cover for the movie, contained a reversible, alternate cover!
This allows you to wrap the case in its more conventional DVD cover (also seen on the cardboard sleeve), or one featuring an unknown woman, holding the vial of pink elixir. Unknown to some, this was the original poster art image used to promote the film, in 1992.
If there is a big area of disappointment for me, it is that there’s no acknowledgement of the ‘original cut’ that was altered into the final product, after a poor test-screening. One would have assumed that maybe in the 25-minute special, Koepp might have shed some light on where he had wanted to take the film originally.
Supposedly, Ernest actually had a confidante, in the form of a bartender named Toni, played by Traci Ullman. Though she showed up in some of the movie trailers, nothing of Ullman’s performance is left on the final print, making Ernest lonely and frustrated with his life, with seemingly noone to confide in.
With the release of Death Becomes Her, we are now only two films away from having all of Zemeckis’ filmography on Blu-Ray format (the films I Wanna Hold Your Hand and What Lies Beneath, are still DVD-only).
While the release didn’t blow me out of the water, I was at least glad to see that Shout Factory
was willing to put some time and effort into not only releasing the film in a decent quality widescreen release, but even threw in the brief retrospective and a few other features.
As many have seen over the years, Hollywood has pulled back from the special features idea of the digital video disc. One assumes that if Universal Studios had released this film, it would have been just the film by itself.
While not one of the best lost gems of the 1990’s, if you’ve got a soft-spot for dark comedy, or are a fan of Robert Zemeckis (or want to simply vent on the vapidness of the media fawning over how youthful and beautiful a celebrity looks), this is definitely the release for you!