Friday, July 27, 2012

Netflix Roulette: Snow White: A Tale of Terror

I'm kind of in a dull spot for my moviegoing year. There's not much playing in easy reach right now that I want to see, let alone write about (I'll pass on the Seth McFarland teddy bear atrocity, thank you very much) and my attention at home has been diverted by the fact that Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations showed up on Netflix. So please pardon my occasional silence right now. In the mean time, I dusted off the ol' roulette wheel and hauled it down from the attic. Wheel of fortune, spin, spin, spin, tell me the movie I shall win...

Well, nothing so baroque as all that. The movie my algorithm gave me was Snow White: A Tale of Terror (directed by Michael Cohn), which went direct to video back in 1997 in spite of having Sigourney Weaver as the evil queen. (The roulette wheel apparently has a sense of humor, given that its first spin of this year gives me yet another version of Snow White, a story lately duking it out in dueling versions at the multiplexes.) This version of the story re-frames the Grimm's story as a Gothic horror story. It's an interpretation not entirely out of keeping with the original, though this film really only has a passing acquaintance with the Brothers Grimm.

The story is familiar enough even though the details are all arbitrarily changed. Following the death of his first wife, the lord of the manor, Frederick Hoffman remarries. His new bride, Claudia, makes an effort to fit in with her new household, but she and Frederick's daughter, Liliana, take an instant dislike to one another. When Liliana accidentally causes Claudia to miscarry, the bad blood between them positively curdles, and Claudia sends her brother, Gustav, after Liliana to cut out her heart. Liliana manages to escape this fate and escape into the woods. Gustav returns to his sister with the heart of a pig, instead, but the magics Claudia intends to work require a human heart, and in her rage, she kills her brother and sets her raven familiar to the task of finding Liliana. Liliana, for her part, shelters with a troop of miners (only one of whom is a dwarf), but their protection doesn't prevent the queen from assailing her from afar. She tries to bury them all in the mine and when that doesn't work, she sets the trees of the forest a-toppling around them. Eventually, she dons the raiment of an old woman, and brings to Liliana a poisoned apple, which imprisons her within her own body...

For some reason, this movie reminds me of a late-period Hammer film. Maybe it's the insistence on filming its big set pieces in daylight when they really ought to be set at night. Maybe it's the made-for-cable-in-Czechoslovakia production values (which, I should admit, are better than Hammer's production values ever were). Maybe it's the second rate supporting cast. Likely, it's the combination. I mean, the idea behind this movie is sound. Snow White is ripe for a horror interpretation. The original story is one of the Grimms' ghastlier tales, after all, and it's absolutely ripe with symbolic possibilities. The three drops of blood? The heart in the box? The poison apple? Oh, mercy, Angela Carter could go to town on the material in this story (for what it's worth, Carter's own version of Snow White doesn't bear much resemblance to the Grimm story). But this is not a movie that delves deeper into the mythic than it absolutely has to to function. It hits most of the notes: magic mirror, poisoned apple, heart in a box, the glass coffin, but these seem like plot points that the filmmakers thought that they had to hit rather than anything organic to the story they wanted to tell. They felt that they could leave out the dwarfs, so they did. I presume that little people are expensive or scarce for low budget filmmakers.

I'm a bit more interested in the motivations they've given this film's wicked stepmother. Claudia Hoffman has a legitimate beef with her fair stepchild. The revenge motive goes a bit farther when it comes to explaining the depth of her hatred than mere jealousy over the child's beauty. This sidesteps a common problem with versions of Snow White, in so far as it doesn't matter who the fairest of them all is. That's not the motivating factor in the action. Which is good, actually, because the difference between the star power and acting chops of Sigourney Weaver and Monica Keena isn't so much a gap as it is a yawning chasm.

If there's a reason to see this movie at all, it's Sigourney Weaver. Weaver gives a committed performance as the evil stepmother, and positively devours the scenery and any supporting player who drifts into her orbit. There's surprising nuance in her character, too, given the horrors that motivate her. Watching Weaver spin like a dervish while lathing herself with the blood of what she believes to be Liliana's heart is one of the few scenes in which there is any visual panache at all.

As I mentioned, this is a film that squanders opportunities. Sam Neill, playing Snow White's father, is a prime example of this. The filmmakers have put him in a Prince Valiant wig, then shuffled him to the back of the frame. Neill is a better actor than the part they've given him. The film is unworthy of him. Also unworthy is the "love's first kiss" scene in which Liliana is revived after biting into the poisoned apple. We already know that Prince Charming (here rendered as the family doctor) is a stiff, so this film's twist on the story isn't exactly a surprise, but they underplay the scene so thoroughly that it winds up being dramatically inert. This is a scene that should be drenched in a kind of romantic delirium, but it winds up being just another plot point to be checked off the shot list. That's the film in a nutshell.

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