Release Date(s)1992 (April 26, 2016)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C+
Death Becomes Her was released in 1992 to mixed reviews, but brought in a successful box office take. Hot off the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Back to the Future sequels, Robert Zemeckis decided to take on the screenplay by a then unknown writer named David Koepp. The film won an Academy Award, a BAFTA, and a Saturn Award for best visual effects, which were considered groundbreaking and helped kickstart the CGI revolution of the early 1990’s.
The film stars Meryl Streep as Madeline, an aging B-movie star in Beverly Hills who is the constant childhood rival of Helen, played by Goldie Hawn. After Madeline steal’s Helen’s fiancé Ernest (Bruce Willis), a reconstructive plastic surgeon, Helen goes mad, vowing for revenge against Madeline. Years later, Madeline must turn to unorthodox methods to stay younger, including paying a million dollars for a magic potion that will stop the aging process. The only drawback is that the person who drinks it is practically dead, or rather living dead. It isn’t long before the jig is up and both Madeline and Helen are fighting over who gets Ernest, whose surgical skills will keep their bodies looking their best forever.
Interestingly enough, I saw Death Becomes Her theatrically in 1992. My Mom and I had sort of made it a regular thing to go out on our birthdays and see a movie together. It just so happened that the only thing playing at that time that we hadn’t seen was Death Becomes Her, which was something I ordinarily would not have gone to the theater to see. I’m thankful that I did because I loved it. I’ve talked before about my love for horror comedies of the 1990’s include the Tales from the Crypt movies and The Frighteners, but Death Becomes Her seemed to be this out of left field movie. It had both major star and directing power behind it, but it was basically a straightforward B horror comedy, and a successfully executed one at that. Robert Zemeckis was involved with the Tales from the Crypt TV series at the time and the movie seemed to play like a long-form episode of that show, almost as if it could have been titled Tales from the Crypt Presents: Death Becomes Her. One had nothing to do with the other, of course, but the parallels are unmistakable.
The movie is also clever in the way that it pokes fun at both the glitzy and seedy Hollywood underbelly, most of whom will do anything to stay young and relevant. Its writer, David Koepp, went on to be a major screenplay writer in Hollywood, and the movie wound up being a minor footnote due to its special effects work. Its blend of opticals, CGI, and practical effects made it stand out. While some of the CGI doesn’t hold up as well today as it perhaps should, you can clearly see why such a big deal was made about it at the time. After all, Robert Zemeckis was a director who was constantly pushing the technological envelope for storytelling, and this movie was a part of that push.
Death Becomes Her opened at number one when it was originally released and managed to stay in the top ten for a few weeks before falling by the wayside. It was considered a hit and it had lots of long term cult appeal due to the nature of the movie itself, but it was strange when it fell into minor obscurity so quickly. Part of the reason may be due to the fact that it just didn’t have a huge aftermarket life. Besides its initial release on VHS, a bare bones, full-screen DVD presentation with little more than a trailer was all that was available for many years. The only way you could get a widescreen copy of the movie was on laserdisc. Still, dark comedies often slip through the cracks and are later resurrected by fans, which is why the movie never managed to fully disappear.
When Scream Factory originally began licensing titles from Universal, it was a good bet that they would get their hands on Death Becomes Her one day. It seemed like a natural fit for their line-up and many fans were asking them for it often. That time has finally arrived, but it’s not under the best circumstances. Unfortunately, the transfer for this release is very problematical and all of Dean Cundey’s lovely cinematography has been compromised. It appears to be an older transfer, which is plagued with excessive DNR to the point where images are mostly soft-looking. An enormous amount of visual information is completely hidden, or worse yet, not present to begin with. Colors are mostly strong, but with questionable skin tones from time to time. Blacks are often too deep, losing more detail in the process, while contrast and brightness levels are merely adequate. All criticisms aside, it’s still a bump up in clarity from the original DVD release, but it certainly left me wanting something better. The soundtrack comes in two options, English 5.1 and 2.0, both DTS-HD tracks. I found the surround track to be more of an enhancement of what’s already present in the stereo track. On both tracks, dialogue is always clear, and sound effects and score have some nice depth and weight to them. For the surround track, there isn’t much spatial activity to be had, but there is some nice background ambience. Both tracks are fine, but the stereo track is really all that you’ll ever need without a major remix. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
Also disappointing is the fact that the extra material that’s been included is probably not what a lot of fans wanted either, but I’ll focus on what IS present and get into what’s not in a bit. There’s a new Making of Death Becomes Her featurette, which features Zemeckis, as well as writer David Koepp and others. It doesn’t really cover a whole lot of ground or get much into the nitty gritty, but it’s nice to at least hear from a few of the major players about the movie, especially the director. Also included is a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette, a photo gallery, and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
Why this release will disappoint fans is the fact that none of the deleted and alternate scenes that were excised from the movie after initial test screenings have been included. As seen in the trailer, there were scenes of Ernest keeping Madeline in a freezer and attempting to drag her frozen body upstairs, as well as scenes involving Tracy Ullman as Toni, a bartender friend of Ernest’s who was more directly involved in the plot along the way, but was cut out of the movie completely. Also not present in the newly-produced featurette are any of the film’s stars, any references to the deleted scenes, or any acknowledgement of the film’s awards for its special effects during its award season. To me, this feels like a very tight-lipped release, where more compromises were made and less material was available than usual. Even the outer slipcase doesn’t feature newly-commissioned artwork, which is the usual custom for a Scream Factory Collector’s Edition release. In all fairness, that probably has more to do with the rights to being able to draw the actor’s faces, but still, it certainly sticks out. As with every release, I know that the folks who worked on it went down every possible avenue they could, but it’s still a mostly disappointing release to me. I love the movie and I’m pleased to have it in widescreen finally for the first time, but I can’t help but feeling like I want more.
It’s a shame that Scream Factory wasn’t able to pull off a truly special Collector’s Edition release of Death Becomes Her like many fans, myself included, have wanted for years. I’m sure it’s not for lack of trying though, and just having the movie on Blu-ray stateside at all is reason enough to check it out. It may be incomplete, but it’s a damn sight better than its DVD counterpart. All in all, I’m just glad to have it represented in my high definition video library now.
- Tim Salmons