Sheets of rain blanket the 1978 New York skyline as a marquis comes into view, touting its message in bright, pink letters: Madeline Ashton in Songbird! Rather than flocking in, however, the theater’s patrons seem to be flooding out, stepping on water logged playbills sporting Ms. Ashton’s smiling face as they grumble their dissatisfaction. Still, inside, amidst the remaining audience members, at least one man stares captivated at the ingenue on stage as she launches into a number extolling her own virtues.
He is Dr. Ernest Menville and beside him is his date, Helen Sharp. Her apprehensive gaze is not on the stage but Ernest, clocking the hungry look in his eye as he follows each flamboyant movement of the actress before him. A standing ovation, a friendly encounter in the dressing room and a wedding later, Helen finds herself alone in her apartment seven years removed, with nothing but her cats, the television and her hatred of her former friend Madeline Ashton to keep her company.
There is a wickedness that pervades even the lightest hearted genre pictures, a playful mean streak that goes with the territory of the otherworldly. From its opening moments, Death Becomes Her (1992) straddles that line, lumbering backwards in high heels as it navigates the immortal, warring, undead divas its runtime so concerns. Like the concurrently running Tales From the Crypt television series the film’s director Robert Zemeckis was also Executive Producing, this was a tale of revenge and comeuppance rooted in the twisted irreverence of all the pulpy anthology horror that had come before it.
While there has been anthology horror in film and print for as long as the mediums have existed, much of its modern influence can be traced back to the pages of 1950’s era EC Comics with series like Tales From the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Horror. Eventually the page gave way to the screen with adaptations like Tales From the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973), even spawning original interpretations from titans of genre storytelling with Stephen King and George A. Romero’s collaboration on Creepshow (1982).
Beyond the television adaptation, Zemeckis was so fascinated by the comics and the original 1972 movie, that he set out to create a sequel to the Tales From the Crypt film. At the same time, screenwriter David Koepp had just inked a deal with Universal which included a script he had written with Martin Donovan. A dark comedy infused with Koepp’s revulsion concerning Beverly Hills’ culture of vanity, the script, which had begun as an anthology itself, had been pared down to only one tale.
The screenplay concerned a man who attempts to kill his wife to no avail, discovering in the process that she is a witch and cannot die. It was not long before the script fell into Zemeckis’ hands. It was clear to him from the start that the macabre tale of amusement, horror and biting satire fit the Tales From the Crypt formula perfectly. Similar to the show, Zemeckis wanted to bring a modern gothic feel to the proceedings, a glamorous sense of wealth, excess and beauty that was deliciously soured by its protagonists’ obtuse and obsessive selfishness.
While rewrites and narrative reworking ultimately steered the movie away from being either a sequel to 1972’s Tales From the Crypt or even the first theatrical feature representing the TV series (an honor that would later go to Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)), what emerged was still infused with the anthology’s DNA. Bringing with him the knowledge and state of the art technology he had employed when creating Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) just a few years before and collaborating with Industrial Light and Magic, Zemeckis set out to make a movie as visually dazzling and bizarre as the starkly witty, morbid and altogether entertaining script demanded.
The story follows three players, Madeline, Helen and Ernest, their destinies intertwined by the lifelong rivalry shared between the two women. Both victims of and subscribers to the debilitating expectations of beauty, femininity and competitive self worth in society at large, they spend the film’s runtime vying for the attention of Ernest, a once celebrated surgeon fallen to alcoholism and mortuary work. Neither desires the man, rather the victory, as both hold little but disdain for the weak willed shell of a person who’s so easily manipulated for the vast majority of the film.
Seven years removed from her marriage to Ernest, Madeline has grown to resent him. Be it his professional failings, his penchant for the drink or simply the fact that she never loved him in the first place, she spends her time in the arms of another man and dreaming of her lost youth. Desperate for a solution to her waning relevance in a world so obsessed with beauty, she finds her way to Lisle von Rothman (Isabella Rossellini), the keeper of a serum which promises eternal youth. What Madeline doesn’t know is that Helen has already met with Lisle and is in route to take revenge for the life that Madeline once stole from her.
After Helen convinces Ernest to kill Madeline through careful and measured means, Madeline returns home only to further quarrel with Ernest. He loses control and attacks, strangling her and dropping her down the stairs, breaking her neck. On the phone with Helen for advice, he discovers that Madeline is anything but dead. He rushes her to the hospital where a doctor finds no sign of life, despite her conscious state. Once back home, Madeline and Helen have it out, climaxing in Madeline’s decision to target a shotgun blast through Helen’s stomach. It’s then that Ernest is tasked with performing the ongoing maintenance the two undead women’s damaged and rotting bodies will require.
Enhancing the proceedings is the groundbreaking, and Oscar winning, visual effects. Combining practical effects, animatronics and CGI that, for the first time, was applied to create photorealistic human skin, ILM and the creative team bring every grotesque moment of the two immortal women’s battle to startling life. Be it a gaping hole in Helen’s chest from a shotgun blast or Madeline’s contorted neck, providing her a rear view that no human eyes should have, the effects further foster the disturbing yet cartoonish reality that Death Becomes Her so charmingly occupies.
Striking visual effects aside, it’s the remarkable cast that stands as the best effect in Zemeckis’ impressive arsenal. Meryl Streep plays Madeline with gaudy aplomb, wearing her insecurities plainly through even the thickest veil of confidence. Goldie Hawn appears as Helen, beginning as a sheepish introvert and transforming so effectively into a gregarious exhibitionist that the two hardly feel like the same person. Bruce Willis rounds out the trio as the put upon Dr. Ernest Menville, a pathetic, broken drunk that finds the will to live when faced with not the promise of death but the guarantee that his misery might not ever come to an end.
Each character is stuck, unhappy and determined to escape or curb their perceived fate. Like the best anthology entries, it moves with energy and purpose, allowing its characters to be as larger than life as its elaborate sets and outrageous story. Still, regardless of the murky moralities at play beneath Ernest, Helen and Madeline’s projected facades, there is a clear right and wrong, a condemning truth that those attempting to play the creator will have to face.
Deciding that they will need Ernest by their side for their chosen eternities, Madeline and Helen arrange for Ernest to meet with Lisle. At a “Spring” party occupied by familiar faces of supposedly dead celebrities, such as Elvis, Andy Warhol and Marilyn Monroe, Ernest must face the choice of eternal youth and restoration. He’s confronted with the overwhelming allure of distilled beauty. The choice reminds of the glitz and glamor of Madeline Ashton at the beginning of the film, her celebrity as compared to his then mundane girlfriend, each more of an idea than a person. It would seem that Ernest’s decisions were driven by the same motivations as his counterparts, regardless of the authenticity he convinced himself he was operating under.
The film climaxes and concludes with Ernest’s decision to embrace his true self, his faults, his failings and his future, choosing to seek solace in finding purpose in the time he has left. Madeline and Helen are left together, trapped eternally in the bodies they so craved which, as with all things, are subject to the cruel frailties of the world around them. Even years later, when they attend Ernest’s funeral in some distant town, listening to the eulogy of a man who lived a full, happy life, surrounded by loved ones, they refute his worth. Stuck in their immortality, they fail to see the freedom inherent in Ernest embracing an alternate path.
While the film was famously retooled before its release, with Zemeckis slicing out scenes, characters and even the film’s intended ending to appease feedback received from test screenings, what remains feels true to the story as well as the film’s anthology horror roots. And, interestingly, although Ernest experiences a different, yet similarly meaningful outcome (in the excised ending he is seen alive and well, vacationing with his newfound love), both end with Madeline and Helen in pieces on the road, old scraps that have long since lost their usefulness.
Death Becomes Her occupies a heightened reality, consisting of thundering clouds and expansive mansions, behemoth egos and monstrous insecurities, absurd grotesquery and hilarious exchanges. While existing outside of the Tales From the Crypt franchise, it feels as one with the sentiments and stylings that so define it, even utilizing Danny Elfman’s Tales theme song in the theatrical trailer. Bolstered by the keen eye of renowned cinematographer Dean Cundey and a memorably atmospheric score by famed composer Alan Silvestri, no expense was spared in bringing this silly, morbid and macabre oddity to the silver screen.
From attempting to leverage their beauty in the rainy streets of New York to desperately trying to hold what’s left of their physical vestiges together in the sun drenched sidewalks of small town USA, it’s not hard to imagine the stories of Madeline, Helen and Ernest as narrated by the creaky voiced Crypt Keeper. Just imagine one snide remark coupled with a sneer, a pun and a high pitched laugh, and it’s not difficult to see how fittingly Death Becomes Her might have kicked off the reinvigorated Tales From the Crypt cinematic universe.
And yet, perhaps it did. The film’s financial success reminded studios once again that off-kilter, unconventional genre entertainment was viable and worth the continued investment. With a cast and crew that screamed credibility, technical achievements that went on to inform all manner of Hollywood effects work and some of the most fun 90’s genre entertainment had to offer, Death Becomes Her was the perfect film to pave the way for Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight. It may not be an anthology, but it flows with one’s wicked flavor, reveling in the extremes of character and situation such a story tends to employ.
It’s a movie about immortality, the desire to cling to that impossible feeling of in-the-moment youth that only has value because of how fleeting it is. Of course, Death Becomes Her has both the luxury and the curse of that which afflicts its protagonists, but unlike the disparate pieces of its undead heroines, its legacy is not trapped in decay. Rather, given its anthology horror roots, its particular brand of immortality will remain eternally vital and ever relevant, a comforting world of strange exaggeration that will always be worth returning to.