One of the darkest of dark comedies to be released by a major studio in the early ’90s, Death Becomes Her is something of a minor miracle. It casts three A-list actors in a special effects comedy about nasty people doing nasty things to one another. It wreaks havoc on the human body to score macabre laughs. Hollywood comedies are rarely this weird.
While I will forever love him for making some of my favorite movies of all-time, director Robert Zemeckis has a tendency to fall in love with special effects to the point that some of his movies exist to service the FX and not the other way around. My memory of Death Becomes Her was that it was one such movie—a thin premise built around Zemeckis’ desire to showcase advances in the possibilities of computer-assisted effects, which were state of the art at the time. Revisiting it after many years, I see that there’s more to the movie than just an FX demo reel, and that for two-thirds of its running time it’s a spirited black comedy and a poison letter to the vanity of Hollywood, penned by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, the latter of whom would go on to write massive hits like Jurassic Park and Spider-Man.
Meryl Streep plays Madeline Ashton, an aging actress who steals the plastic surgeon fiancée of her best friend, author Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). After years in an unhappy marriage to Madeline, Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) drinks to get through the day and has been reduced to applying makeup to bodies at the mortuary. Terrified of getting older and losing her looks, Madeline visits a strange woman (Isabella Rossellini) who grants her a potion that undoes the effects of aging and will allow her to live forever—no matter what happens. When Madeline takes a nasty fall down some stairs and breaks her neck, the potion’s power is put to the test. That’s when Helen reenters the picture with a few secrets of her own.
A longtime genre movie fan who is never one to shy away from his influences, Zemeckis spins Death Becomes Her into a love letter to classic Universal horror. There are no monsters present (not the supernatural kind, anyway), but there are mad scientists and lightning-filled skies and plenty of canted angles born out of the German expressionist influences on Universal horror. The performances are a lot of fun, with both Hawn and Streep clearly relishing the opportunity to let it rip and embrace the worst they’ve seen of actors during their years spent in Hollywood. Though he got his start in comedy, Bruce Willis was really known as an action star when the movie was released in 1992, making his casting as an anxiety-riddled nebbish an inspired instance of an actor playing completely against type. While he gets several of the movie’s funniest lines (“The morgue? She’ll be furious!”), his performance runs out of steam eventually. His exasperated panic is entertaining at first, but overstays its welcome.
The major set piece of the movie, of course, is the long sequence in which Hawn and Streep finally confront one another and Zemeckis lets the Academy Award-winning effects really rip. Holes are blown clean through characters. Heads are twisted around multiple times. The natural laws of the universe are gleefully tossed away as Zemeckis pitches some genuinely nasty violence with all the humor and emotional stakes of Daffy Duck taking a blast of his bill in the old Looney Tunes shorts. Everything about the film has been leading to this confrontation, from setting up the conflict between the characters to establishing the potion that makes thwarting death possible, and Zemeckis doesn’t disappoint.
That’s really where the movie ought to climax, though, as everything that comes after (with the exception of the pitch-black punch line) is a letdown. Characters form an alliance that is completely at odds with everything that preceded it, and the point of view pivots to focus primarily on the Bruce Willis character. The air is let out of the film in its last third despite a couple of show-stopping camera moves and a lot of technical proficiency. The jokes more or less stop once the central conflict has been resolved; without that, the film doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. It’s not enough to undo the fun of the previous two acts, but it does bring the movie to something of a clunky finish.
Scream Factory’s track record with Universal catalogue titles has been somewhat spotty, but their transfer for Death Becomes Her looks very good. Presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen transfer in 1080p HD, the film has been given a spiffy makeover with strong black levels and nice detail throughout. The major bonus feature included is one of Scream Factory’s very good retrospective featurettes, “The Making of Death Becomes Her”, which runs just under 30 minutes and features interviews with Zemeckis, writer David Koepp, cinematographer Dean Cundey and other creative personnel. An archival “making of” featurette is also included, as is a gallery of production stills and the original theatrical trailer.
Despite a bumpy finish, Death Becomes Her remains one of the better horror comedies of the ’90s—particularly those released by a major studio. It’s a title worthy of inclusion within the Scream Factory label and makes for a solid Blu-ray release. How amazing to think that Robert Zemeckis’ very next movie would be the Oscar-sweeping Forrest Gump, which more or less altered the trajectory of his career towards more “respectable” fare and away from innovative little genre films like this one. I miss the Robert Zemeckis who made Death Becomes Her.
Movie Score: 3.5/5, Disc Score: 3/5