I’ll be honest. In 1992, I had little to no interest in Death Becomes Her, even knowing full well that Robert Zemeckis, the director of the Back to the Future Trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was at the helm. Why? To be blunt, a film starring Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep wasn’t high on my priorities. I watched the film once, in my video store clerk days, but even then I considered it forgettable. A mere two years later Zemeckis would go on to direct Forest Gump and win the Academy Award for Best Director, thus wiping my mind clean of this bizarre horror movie. Shout! Factory’s horror brand, Scream Factory, has recently released a Collector’s Edition of the film on Blu-ray. It was high time I give Death Becomes Her another shot.
For the uninitiated, Meryl Streep plays an actress named Madeline Ashton, who is on the downward slide of her career. Her best friend, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), is a mousey would-be novelist that is engaged to a plastic surgeon named Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis). When Madeline meets Ernest, she believes that she has found a cheap way to the fountain of youth and quickly seduces him. Several years later, we see that Madeline and Ernest’s relationship was not all roses for either of them, and Helen is in a psych ward. Madeline, still obsessed with her looks, is invited to meet Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), a woman who has the secret to internal youth, but it comes with a price.
The plot unfolds quickly to reveal the personal hell that Ernest has found himself in. A hell that wraps itself around the glitz and shallowness of Hollywood. Willis is superb as the comedic pawn between these two ladies. What is surprising is that most people now only think of Willis as John McClane from the Die Hard films. In 1992 he was still fondly remembered for his role on Moonlighting and kept bouncing back and forth between Die Hard-esque films and comedies like Look Who’s Talking. His comedic timing is perfect and he creates a hero who is relatable and sympathetic. It’s great to be reminded of an actor’s range even if they don’t play these types of roles as often in their careers.
Outside of Willis’ performance, I really began to feel as if Death Becomes Her was the longest Tales from the Crypt episode ever. Zemeckis, who produced the HBO series and helmed several episodes, had all the right elements in this film. It was a goofy horror story with a great comeuppance for its villains. In fact, if you take out Lisle Von Rhuman’s small vessel that holds the mystic potion and inserted the “key” from Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight and Tales from the Crypt: Bordello of Blood, it would have been a great first installment. Everything felt like a Tales from the Crypt story, with actors in roles outside of their comfort zones, Goldie Hawn as a living corpse who tries to murder her best friend, Alan Silvestri’s music, and even the cutting edge special effects. All these things imply that the Crypt Keeper should usher you out of the picture into the credits. In short, I loved this film.
Now with a greater appreciation of the 1992 classic, I dove into the special features and found little to no mention of a correlation between this film and Tales From the Crypt. Nowhere in “The Making of Death Becomes Her” did Zemeckis or screenwriter, David Koepp, mention the TV series. However, the stories about the production and working with Willis, Hawn, and Streep were much appreciated by this new fan of the film. Koepp, who acknowledges this as his first screenplay, admits to being spoiled by this film and his next because he ended up working with Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg right out of the gate. He also admits that his inspiration for the film came from living in Hollywood and witnessing its wicked vanity that is just under the surface of all the star studded glitz.
The special effects here are also groundbreaking. Koepp discusses one scene in particular that he was forced to rewrite because Zemeckis wanted Streep to walk around with her head on backward. Koepp asked if that could be done on screen and Zemeckis replied, “I don’t know”, but if you watch the film or look at the poster, you know that they found a way. We often forget which films broke new ground in special effects and this, in particular, is one to take notice of. It predates Forest Gump and Jurassic Park, but both films needed Death Becomes Her to pave the way.
Whether you are a fan of Robert Zemeckis, Bruce Willis, Tales from the Crypt, or just like Gothic Horror, I recommend discovering or rediscovering Death Becomes Her. It is a wickedly funny tale that still leaves you in awe for the special effects we see on the screen.
Order Death Becomes Her from Shout! Factory here.
NEW The Making of Death Becomes Her featuring interviews with director Robert Zemeckis, writer David Koepp, director of photography Dean Cundey, Production Designer Rick Carter and special effects artists Lance Anderson and David Anderson
Vintage “Behind-the-Scenes” featurette
Original Theatrical Trailer