By now I’m sure you know the formula for this column. I introduce one of our beloved horror icons as a means to steer you toward one of their lesser-known works. Nothing too complicated, but I’ve found it works. This time around, however, I worry that my usual spiel will bury the lede, as I’ve made a profound discovery in the made-for-TV horror fairy tale Snow White: A Tale of Terror, featuring Sigourney Weaver. This movie, ladies and gentlemen, is the silliest horror movie ever made.
I know what you’re thinking: But Bryan, how could you make such a claim in a world where movies like Sleepaway Camp II, Blood Diner, or any variety of wacky ’80s slasher movies exist? You raise a fair point, good reader, but the difference is that they were actively trying to be silly while Snow White: A Tale of Terror never flinches in its serious approach to the material, which only makes the experience that much more wonderfully goofy.
Released on Showtime in 1997, Snow White is drenched from head to toe in that special brand of low budget that you can only get from made-for-television horror from the mid-’90s. The cover art, synth-laden soundtrack, and renaissance faire costume design give the movie a feel that would seem right at home in either a Full Moon production or, since this is Showtime, one of those late-night erotic flicks where Snow White’s top would fall off with regularity (at least, this is what I’ve heard goes on in these types of films).
Of course, most horror fans will tell you that low budget sometimes just comes with the territory and can be overlooked if some of the other core elements are sound, particularly performances. In Snow White: A Tale of Terror, the casting choices certainly work on paper. Monica Keena fills in as the titular Snow White, although here she goes by Lilli Hoffman. Say what you will, but I’ve always thought there was something charming about Keena, be it in a goofy but sincere turn in Freddy vs. Jason, a fun take on the lead for the Night of the Demons remake, or even as one of the brattier members of Dawson’s Creek (screw you, it was a good show). In Snow White, you could accuse her of a bit of melodramatic acting, but honestly that seems to be the order of the day here. Enter Sam Neill who, as Lilli’s father, Frederick, tiptoes to the precipice of overacting without ever quite tumbling over, even while working against some pretty shoddy wig work. Of all casting choices, I’d say the biggest misstep is Gil Bellows as Will, the head of the group of derelict miners who stand in for the dwarves for this movie’s purposes.
So at this point I’m sure you have another burning question: Bryan, you’ve been yapping on about budget and cast, but why the hell have you not mentioned Sigourney Weaver? Another fair question, good reader. You’re very astute today, so bully for you. I have to admit I’ve been holding out on discussing Weaver because even now I’m not one hundred percent sure what to think about her performance.
Sigourney Weaver has made a career out of imbuing her characters with a level of quiet dignity that transcends any genre she’s in. Of course she’s untouchable in the Alien franchise, giving us one of the best heroes of all time. In Ghostbusters, she somehow makes the process of turning into a demonic dog respectable and sexy. Hell, in Galaxy Quest she completely inverts the blonde bimbo trope. A certain level of restraint threads through virtually any role she takes, which is why I was so stunned to see that in Snow White, she’s decided to abandon all that and completely go off the deep end.
As Lilli’s stepmother, Claudia, Weaver takes batshit crazy to dizzying heights. In all fairness, the story plays an interesting angle in which she’s not necessarily evil at the beginning of the story. Her turn for the sinister comes after miscarrying a son in an incident for which she blames Lilli. But when she does go over the edge, hoo boy. She comes on to her brother Gustav (before turning on and killing him). She dances around while rubbing herself with a human heart. She even dabbles in cannibalism.
In the hands of another actor, I would question some of Weaver’s decisions. Hell, early in the movie I questioned a few of them anyway. But knowing how calculated she is, I have to think there was a method to the madness, especially considering the outlandish nature of the source material. If you look at the Grimm Brothers’ original Snow White story without the sterilized Disney filter, it, like many other fairy tales of its time, is steeped in melodrama and insanity. The queen, for example, attempts to kill Snow White not only with a poisoned apple, but also with a poisoned comb and a bodice drawn tight enough to suffocate the poor girl (she’s in turn made to dance to her death in burning hot slippers, by the way). In this context, I imagine Weaver was giving herself over to the lunacy demanded by the story, and her Emmy nomination for the role seems to support that claim.
Even after everything I’ve said above, I’ll be damned if I know how to rate this movie. It could be a hidden gem that will one day be recognized as a melodramatic masterpiece (unlikely). It could also just be a big old mess that will be recognized as such (perhaps more likely). It’s probably telling that the rest of director Michael Cohn’s résumé includes instant classics Sacrifice, Interceptor, and When the Bough Breaks. But regardless of whether Snow White stands the test of time (it probably won’t), if you give it a watch I guarantee you won’t be bored. You might be confused or bewildered from time to time, but never bored.