In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park changed the face of movie special effects. It set the new standard for digital effects mixed with practical models that still look good today. The film was so revolutionary that we sort of forget all about the movies that were the pinnacle effects prior to Jurassic.
As a movie-obsessed kid–one who loved learning how they did special effects–the movie that I think I saw the most about was Robert Zemeckis‘ 1992 dark comedy/horror movie Death Becomes Her. I saw everything about how the then-revolutionary digital effects were achieved…but I didn’t actually see the movie until this week. It’s actually pretty good!
There was a sweet spot back in the early-’90s when a dark comedy could be made and get a lot of money and big names behind it. Would something like The Addams Family have been made before or since? Probably not. This was a time when Tales from the Crypt was on TV and was doing GREAT. The executive producer of Crypt, Robert Zemeckis, was sitting on high street following the success of the Back to the Future movies and could pretty much do what he wanted, and with those movies and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he proved he was adept at making effects movies.
So put all those things together, and what do ya get?
Death Becomes Her feels like it could be an extended episode of Tales from the Crypt. It was written by young screenwriters and occasional collaborators David Koepp and Martin Donovan. Death Becomes Her was their breakout, and Koepp specifically followed the success of this movie with writing both Jurassic Park and Carlito’s Way. It seems a weird movie to springboard such a career, but that’s the ’90s for you. The script attacks the vapid vanity of the Beverly Hills wealthy set and the desire to remain young far more than remaining healthy, or alive.
The movie centers on a rivalry between two “friends,” Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) and Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), and their using the hapless, intensely henpecked plastic surgeon, Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis). In 1978, Helen and fiance Ernest go see a crappy musical starring movie star Madeline. The meeting is to prove if Ernest can be the one of Helen’s suitors to withstand Madeline’s wiles. Naturally, he doesn’t, and soon they get married instead. Meanwhile, Helen has gotten very overweight and gone insane with hatred. She needs to find her revenge.
Meanwhile–go figure–the now-12-year-long marriage between Madeline and Ernest has gone horribly. She nitpicks everything he does, he drinks into a stupor every night, and his practice is gone. He’s forced to do makeup on dead people so they look healthy and alive for their funerals (his trick is spray paint). Madeline is obsessed by her fading youth and beauty and when the two go see the newly-vivacious Helen at a book signing, Madeline is willing to do anything to look young again, even take a potion from the strangely youthful 71-year-old Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini). She warns Madeline, though, to take care of her body, which hard to do with Ernest and Helen plotting her death.
What really gave the film notoriety at the time was the way these undying ladies are portrayed. Madeline is pushed down the stairs and her neck snaps and limbs contort, but she gets up and walks around, which required the use of green screen composition. Same with Helen getting a shotgun blast through the belly and having a big hole through her for a portion of the movie. The constant hurting of each other made for some really funny and hilariously violent moments, and it still looks (mostly) good today. A couple of the shots are very clearly early digital, but it’s at its best when it blends real elements rather than being wholly its own.
A modern movie like this would be entirely about the women being zombies, but the zed word is never even uttered. Streep and Hawn are excellent as dueling ice queens, and by the end of the movie, they’ve become the biggest and most disgusting versions of the plastic surgery enthusiasts, held together with nothing but glue and paint. Bruce Willis actually gives one of my favorite performances of his, being the most whiny, panicky, weak-willed character of all time. This was only four years after Die Hard, lest we forget.
For those–like me last week–who’ve never seen Death Becomes Her, now’s a good time. Scream Factory has put out a fancy new Blu-ray with a half-hour making-of, featuring interviews with Zemeckis, Koepp, and other crew members. It gives you some nice insight into the state of the movie industry at the time and why and how a movie like this could get made then, but never could now.
Images: Universal Studios