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Reviews 31 Days of Horror

Death Becomes Her

Death Becomes Her

Robert Zemeckis

USA, 1992

Credits

Review by Eva Holland

Posted on 13 October 2007

Source Universal DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror

Long before Simon Pegg brought the world the zom-rom-com, and before Wes Craven made us scream, there was another comedy-horror hybrid on the scene: Death Becomes Her. But it is neither as funny as Shaun of the Dead nor as surprising or suspenseful as the first Scream movie managed to be at times: it is left, instead, to flounder awkwardly between genres, with some small laughs and plenty of bone-breaking, blood-spilling special effects.

Death Becomes Her follows the story of two women: fading starlet Madeline Ashton and would-be author Helen Sharp, old friends from high school. When Helen brings her fiancé, all-star plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville, to one of Madeline’s Broadway shows, he quickly becomes infatuated and leaves one woman for the other. Helen is left paralyzed with bitterness and rage.

Flash-forward fourteen years. Dr. Menville is a broken-spirited alcoholic whose career has spiraled downward: an unlikely transition from plastic surgeon to undertaker. His wife, Madeline, is obsessed with slowing the aging of her body; Helen, meanwhile, is still obsessed with revenge. Madeline’s desperation for a cure takes her to a creepy mansion full of Dobermans and half-naked men, where she does a deal for a potion that will give her eternal youth—but back at the Menville house, Ernest and a suspiciously youthful-looking Helen are plotting her death.

The movie is already half over by the time it gets to this point, and given that we know just by looking at the DVD box that both Madeline and Helen will join the ranks of the living dead and still continue to destroy each other even after, that’s far too long. The background to the Helen-Madeline feud could have been gone over more quickly, or shown in flashbacks, and even after the so-called revelation that the girls are undead, the action continues at a slow, disjointed pace. The movie climaxes with a return to the creepy mansion, where a party attended by all the potion-takers gets a few laughs. The final, not-so-suspenseful question the movie poses: Will poor, broken, wasted Ernest join his two ladies in eternal life? Or will he learn that life is meant to be lived and enjoyed and ended, rather than spent obsessing about perfection?

Despite the absurdity of the plot and the sledgehammer subtlety of the message, there are some good moments in here. Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep obviously have a lot of fun as Helen and Madeline – Meryl Streep’s fragile, arrogant starlet is particularly well done – and Bruce Willis makes a better job of the defeated, frazzled, self-loathing Ernest than I would have expected. The dialogue, like that in the B-movie horrors that I suppose the film is parodying, is overdone and deliberate—but this makes for some of the funnier moments: “Do you know what they do to soft, bald, overweight Republicans in prison, dear?” Madeline asks her husband after his first, unsuccessful attempt to kill her. And the distributor of the magic potion, played by Isabella Rossellini, is sufficiently over-the-top that she transcends “bad” and moves into “so-bad-it’s-good” territory.

I suppose there is some decent commentary about aging, death, and the pursuit of physical perfection in this movie, as well as some clever parodying of aspects of the classic horror film. But for my part, it is hard to notice those good bits when Meryl Streep has her head on backwards and Goldie Hawn has a volleyball-sized hole in her stomach.

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