Monday, June 26, 2023

Whistle While You Weaver

Here's something you have to understand about teenage Emily in the late '90s: she was hungry for things just not being served. The box office failures of late '80s fantasies left a void in cinema. No studio wanted to invest the necessary millions in such a risky genre, leading movies like Snow White: A Tale of Terror doomed to die in the straight-to-video dumps. 

I craved this kind of content, and eagerly recorded the Showtime premiere on an empty VHS. It's probably been a good twenty years since I rewound that rickety tape, but when this popped up on the Roku Channel, I figured a rich velvet gown-drenched stroll through memory lane was in order. 

Quick Plot: German Nobleman Frederick Hoffman is traveling with his very pregnant wife over rocky, snowy terrain when their carriage flips over and the driver is mauled by wolves. Thankfully, Frederick is fully armed with exactly what you needed for an emergency C-section in the 15th century: a big knife. 

Not surprisingly, Frederick becomes the single father to the somewhat rebellious Lilli, who turns full brat when he remarries the beautiful Claudia. After pranking her new stepmother on the wedding night, Lilli flees to Claudia's bedroom only to watch her beloved nanny die in fright at the sight of Claudia's mysterious heirloom mirror set. 

Nine years pass and Claudia is finally pregnant, while the teenage Lilli yearns to explore the world beyond her family's sprawling estate. One more act of stepdaughter rebellion coincides with Claudia delivering a stillborn son. Despite an earnest attempt at apology, Lilli's fate is sealed: Claudia orders her mute brother Gustav to murder her in the woods. A pig heart later and everything seems in order in the now roomier Hoffman household. 

Lilli finds refuge with a group of forest-dwelling miners, beaten up men who have angered the authorities for one reason or another. Back home, Claudia tries various spells to kill Lilli from afar before taking things into her own glamour'd hands. 

Snow White: A Tale of Terror was a missed opportunity for its studio, being dumped on video and Showtime without an in-theaters release (the kiss of death in the '90s, the norm now). Director Michael Cohn's career suffered, and the film found a tiny audience in that very small faction of dark fantasy-craving loving girls. We were treated one year later to another Sam Neill fantasy foray with NBC's Merlin miniseries, but for the most part, it wasn't considered a profitable genre.

It's a shame. Snow White isn't, say, Pan's Labyrinth, but give me a world where it performed well enough for us to have had copycats. The Grimm Brothers' fairy tales are notoriously grisly stories and while we've always had plenty of Angela Carter-esque fiction and a horror film adaptation here and there, the kind of earnest embrace that Cohn brings to the style is what so many people (and I'd argue particularly women) crave. On its own, Snow White is entertaining, but it's the overall feel (or vibe, as I understand the kids these days to say) that feels so rich. 

Two decades later, we'd get a few rounds of Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent, franchises led by the kind of Oscar-winning actresses tapping into their inner fantasy drag queen with relish. Sigourney Weaver's Claudia is right up there, and it's a minor shame that it didn't break through at a time that could have led to more of these kinds of projects. Maybe the film's main issue was that it didn't quite nail its tone in a way to make it easily identifiable to a broad audience. The tone is dark, but there's a slight hesitancy to go into full horror territory. We're probably right in the middle of a hard PG-13/soft R, which, I'd wager, might have then cast the film as a tricky sell. 

High Points
Seriously, praise an actress like Sigourney Weaver who just GOES for it. Her Claudia is a genuine well-thought out character: a sympathetic woman who might have started with a touch of the dark side in her trunk, but who so understandably crosses the line. Weaver clearly came to the role knowing she wasn't going to play a stock Disney monster, and she balances the pathos of a sad woman who's experienced deep loss with the naughty possibilities of one willing to go dark with her power. Without question, it's the reason to watch the movie. 

Low Points
It's not uncommon for the villain to outshine the ingenue in this kind of film, but Snow White is particularly criminal in this regard. Lilli is a spoiled brat on paper, and Monica Keena doesn't find a way to elevate her and further

Lessons Learned
Never interrupt a pregnant woman's aria

C-sections are pretty intuitive operations for non-medical professionals, even in the middle of a forest during a blizzard

The way to a stepdaughter's heart is an adorable puppy

I have a nostalgic fondness for Snow White: A Tale of Terror, but I think I can objectively say that anyone with an interest in this kind of horror fantasy will find something worthwhile here. Sigourney Weaver brings everything you wanted and more to her role, all while wearing soem pretty fabulous period costume. The Czecholslovakian locations standing in for the Black Forest are as beautifully scenic, and our castle interiors complete the package. Sure, our heroine is a dud, but this is a movie with plagues! And mine collapses! And Sigourney Weaver trying desperately to make Sam Neill eat the heart of his daughter! 

I think I love this movie?

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