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Dustin Putman

Death Becomes Her  (1992)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
3.5 Stars
(Release Date: April 26, 2016) – Easily one of the sharpest and most underrated films of Robert Zemeckis' illustrious career, "Death Becomes Her" is black comedy at its most deliciously acidic. That this fantasy-horror-screwball fable got made at all—and with a game A-list cast led by Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis and Goldie Hawn, to boot—is something of a small miracle. Opening at #1 at the box office in July 1992, the $55-million picture ultimately grossed a just-okay $58-million stateside and a more potent $149-million worldwide. Best remembered for its Oscar-winning visual effects artistry and the use of groundbreaking CGI techniques still in their infancy, "Death Becomes Her" has rightfully earned a passionate cult following over the last few decades. Nevertheless, perhaps due to its lack of a satisfying home video release beyond a fullscreen DVD in 1998, the film has drifted into predominate obscurity. Now that its moment in the spotlight has once again arrived via a long-awaited Collector's Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory, it deserves to be rediscovered and reassessed as the lavish, oddball, daringly inventive, bitingly entertaining big-studio anomaly it is.

Fading 50-year-old Hollywood star Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) sees herself getting older each day, and she doesn't like it one bit. Fourteen years earlier, she callously stole plastic surgeon Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) away from mousy, long-suffering frenemy Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), but their happily-ever-after marriage has since become mighty gray. With the alcoholic Ernest now working as a mortician and Madeline's career all but nonexistent, they can barely stand the sight of each other. When Helen walks back into their lives looking more stunning than ever, Madeline turns to drastic measures to reclaim her youth. Following an address on a business card her plastic surgeon has given her, she finds herself in the formidably gothic mansion of Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), an alluring mystery woman with a potion holding the transformative key to eternal life. It is an offer Madeline can't possibly refuse, but one with some dire consequences as Ernest and the vengeance-seeking Helen secretly begin plotting her demise.

Shrewdly written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp (the latter going on to pen a small 1993 indie drama called "Jurassic Park"), "Death Becomes Her" is a fatalistic cautionary tale with an auspicious imagination. Director Robert Zemeckis and composer Alan Silvestri have collaborated on possibly the best film Tim Burton and Danny Elfman never made, injecting the fantastical story with a darkly foreboding grin and a satirically cutting sense of humor. The actors go for broke, flinging themselves into their tantalizingly outlandish roles. Meryl Streep is flawless as the desperate, self-consumed Madeline Ashton, learning the hard way that the promise of immortality might not easily mesh with a person who is the target of brutal homicide. As adversary Helen, a recently transformed knockout dead-set on making Madeline pay for ruining her life years earlier, Goldie Hawn is an energetic spitfire. Streep and Hawn's unforgettably catty chemistry is offset by Bruce Willis' forlorn, beaten-down Ernest Menville, a man who comes to discover he would rather try to live a great, regular-sized life than be around forever as the world changes and he buries the rest of his loved ones. Willis gives his all to the kind of comically animated part he no longer receives or can be bothered to sell.

"Death Becomes Her" is a loopy, quirky, ghoulishly funny star vehicle, the kind that puts its actors in their best light while giving them the chance to dig into juicy, physically nimble roles. Tech credits are ace across the board, from Alan Silvestri's memorable music score, to Dean Cundey's stunning lensing, to Rick Carter's grand, diabolically designed production design. Streep's opening song-and-dance Broadway musical number (in a distasteful fictional production of "Sweet Bird of Youth" called "Songbird!") kicks off the film in high spirits, and the energy never lags for the next 100 minutes. Elegant storytelling, slapsticky physical comedy and an all-consuming deeper message about life, death, vanity and the importance of making one's singular life the best it can be exquisitely comingle in "Death Becomes Her." This is an innovative, mischievously macabre gem.

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

Not released on U.S. home video in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio since the olden days of laserdiscs (the antiquated Universal DVD was notoriously full-frame), "Death Becomes Her" has received a rejuvenating high-def transfer on Blu-ray, courtesy of Scream Factory. While the 1080p picture isn't quite as youthful as it might have looked had a full 4K restoration taken place, this is still the best this film has looked since it played in theaters in 1992. Colors pop from frame one during an establishing shot of a rainy Manhattan skyline, and proceed throughout. The purple glow of Lisle's gothic mansion and the magical bottle of potion, Helen's red dress, the roaring flames in Madeline and Ernest's fireplace—all of this and so much more looks splendid. Black levels are strong, while detail and clarity is impressive (there are definitely a few softer spots in the slightly aged 35mm photography, though). Amazing, too, that the Oscar-winning, then-state-of-the-art visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic continue to impress 24 years later. The print used appears to be in fine shape; there is no egregious damage to speak of. Two audio options are offered: a 2.0 track and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. While both are fairly front-heavy, the 5.1 is the way to go, providing more spatiality in its sound effects and Alan Silvestri's excellent music score.

Blu-ray Features
  • "The Making of Death Becomes Her" Featurette (25:03, HD)
  • Vintage Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (8:58, SD)
  • Photo Gallery (4:13, HD)
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (2:05, HD)
Bottom Line
At long last, "Death Becomes Her" has received the reverent treatment it deserves! Scream Factory's eagerly anticipated Blu-ray may be decidedly low on extras for a release carrying the "Collector's Edition" moniker, but, frankly, it doesn't matter in the least. The film speaks for itself, and this one is criminally underappreciated and, for its time, technologically groundbreaking. Looking nearly as clean and vibrant as it did back in 1992, "Death Becomes Her" comes highly recommended on Blu-ray. For fans, a must-buy.

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© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman


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