This week’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot heads in a direction I would frankly never have thought of, but I’m so glad Nathaniel picked this movie. In celebration of 1992’s Death Becomes Her showing up on Blu-ray, making the first time ever (I think) that U.S. audiences can own the film in its original aspect ratio, we’re all taking a look at that oddly overlooked entry in Robert Zemeckis’s directorial canon, the film he made right smack in between wrapping up the Back to the Future trilogy and winning his Oscar on the shoulders of Boomer nostalgia with Forrest Gump. It’s not a movie anybody much talks about, which is too bad: it’s right in line with everything he was up to in that phase of his career, creating a blurry comedy-genre hybrid using bleeding-edge effects (the film took home the VFX Oscar, its sole nomination) as a way of heightening and exaggerating character and story. It’s his “horror” film in exactly the way that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is his “film noir“: an ironic but enthusiastic popcorn movie made by a film geek.
Now’s not the time to get all rhapsodic about Death Becomes Her, though (“review every Robert Zemeckis movie” isn’t not a goal of mine, so that time will hopefully eventually come). Right now it’s time to pick a favorite shot, and I have to concede that mine is really not at all adventurous – it’s the sort of image that, when you’re watching the movie, you can kind of tell that the filmmakers (Zemeckis, director of photography Dean Cundey, visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston) had the intention that audiences would specifically be buzzing about this shot after the movie was over. But one of the things I love about Zemeckis is that he has such a tremendous gift for being obvious in creative, high-quality ways, much like his mentor Steven Spielberg. So here it is.
There are a few different things that the movie as a whole is playing at. It’s demonstrating the versatility of CGI effects, eleven months before Jurassic Park came out; it’s indulging in some really nasty, morbid black comedy (the probable reason it was one of Zemeckis’s dampest squibs at the box office – only last year’s The Walk really out-flopped it); it’s satirising culture’s ludicrous beauty expectations for women, and the kind of women who respond by making those expectations their reason for being; it’s doing body horror as a breezy summer comedy. My shot doesn’t hit all of those – you’d never know from that image that it’s a satire, for sure. But I think it gets most of the rest across: the showy effects of a big hole right in the middle of Undead Goldie Hawn’s body, and a shot that makes it very clear that they weren’t just using a dummy, combined with Meryl Streep and Bruce Willis’s more-confused-than-frightened expressions for the comedy. Besides the fact that pointing the camera through a gaping wound can pretty much only be disgusting or goofy, depending on context, and Death Becomes Her works pretty hard to make sure that the context screams “goofy”. The fact that the hole is out-of-focus, and the bright, cheery lighting both help with that.
Anyway, it’s a delightful delayed-reaction gag that’s situated well within the movie, but the thing I like most about the shot is that it’s an unabashed appropriation of a horror cliché, rejuvenated by the zeal and playfulness of that appropriation. Nobody who’s seen more than a few zombie films can remain significantly moved by shots where the camera looks through a hole in a body or head. I’m not accusing Zemeckis of being a grindhouse fan, but I think he must have had some sense that this was corny and tired by the time he set up this shot; that is, in fact, why it works. Put this moment in a horror film, it’s worth only a groan, maybe a reluctant nod if it’s done particularly well. Put it in a satiric dark comedy, and you get a knowing wink at the horror tropes that the film is travestying throughout. Basically, we’ll never find this scary if it’s done legitimately, but this isn’t legitimate: it’s signifying that all of this is faintly ludicrous, because the whole movie is full of awful people behaving ludicrously. It’s pure Zemeckis: instead of doing something new, doing something old in a purposefully different, bent way.