Sunday, 3 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 17 - Snow White: A Tale of Terror

#84 - Snow White: A Tale of Terror:

Raise your hand if you were brought up with fairytales. If you weren’t then, well I hope your parents had a good alternative. I guess the main thing with fairytales is they do teach you values...only that wasn’t originally what they were meant for. It’s pretty common knowledge these days that the fairytales you read as a child were way different from the originals. Let’s just say the stepsisters in Cinderella cut off their toes to try and fit into the slipper, the prince rapes Sleeping Beauty while she’s asleep and Little Red Riding Hood ends up eating her own grandmother. There’s a charming Cracked article where you can get more information. Here we bring you to the fairytale that’s still quite disturbing even when it’s kid-friendly. Here is an attempt to bring Snow White back to its original gothic roots.

The film opens with a carriage accident resulting in the death of a noblewoman Liliana Hoffman though thankfully her baby daughter is spared. Seven years later, the young Lilli is getting a stepmother, the Lady Claudia (Sigourney Weaver). Now Lady Claudia differs from the familiar stepmother in that she isn’t nasty at all. In fact she presents gifts and affection for her new stepdaughter in the hopes of being friends. But the spoiled brat Lilli rebuffs her and they have a stormy relationship for the next nine years. Claudia is ready to give birth to a baby boy but suffers a miscarriage and her baby is stillborn. Even worse, Claudia won’t have any more children. Things get even more awful for her when she looks into her antique mirror and sees how old she’s getting. There’s no need to lay out the rest of the plot as it follows the typical Snow White fairytale normally, albeit a little darker and more gruesome.

What I love about this film is that it deconstructs both the kid-friendly fairytale we know so well, and the original too. It places the fairytale in a realistic medieval setting (where everyone strangely speaks with American accents) and plays it out as a more believable tale. I love the way the stepmother and Snow White are deconstructed as well. It makes Claudia a very tragic character and then it’s interesting to see the roles switch in the middle of the story so that Claudia is now the villain and we have to root for the spoiled and bratty Lilli. It goes even further with the gold miners she stays with – they aren’t cute little dwarves (well one’s a dwarf but he isn’t cute) but outcasts from society. We don’t get any official word on why they are outcasts except that one refused to fight for the Crusaders. Aside from the dwarf, there’s one with a deformed face, one who’s mentally handicapped, one who appears to be a dark priest and one implied to be a thief and another implied to be a rapist. 

The casting for this film was pretty impressive as well. We have Sigourney Weaver as Claudia, in one of her more entertaining roles. I’d never expect to see Sigourney doing a film like this but it’s definitely a must-see if you’re a fan of hers. I realise now exactly how many of her films are on this list. Sam Neill plays Lilli’s father and doesn’t really do much but he is a fine actor so he does the best with what he gets. Now as Lilli, we have young Monica Keena. I only recognise her from Freddy Vs Jason but she is pretty good in this. And she’s definitely the prettiest movie version of Snow White there ever was, definitely deserving the title of “fairest in the land”. Gill Bellows, who I haven’t really seen much of, was also good as the leader of the miners and Lilli’s love interest. Ghost Whisperer fans might also recognise David “Jim Clancey” Conrad as Peter, the supposed Prince in the story. And we have a mini Alien3 reunion as Brian Glover (Mr Andrews) has a small role as Lars.

To me, there’s just something about dark fairytale movies that’s interesting. You always see filmmakers trying to use the source material and turn it around into horror. Thankfully the filmmakers here made Snow White a lot less idiotic than she was in the original (opening the door to the queen three times and taking whatever she’s offered) by making Claudia’s first two attempts at killing her more indirect. The two scenes are pretty impressive and exciting to watch. The first time happens when Lilli is underground with the miners and Claudia uses voodoo to make the mine cave in (a robin in an hourglass to be specific). The second time happens when she conjures up a strong wind in the forest and makes the trees fall down. And of course the poisoned apple scene is equally creepy. But for me, the creepiest thing in the film has to go to the gigantic armoire with the magic mirror inside it. Here they went with a reflection of Claudia only more eerie, instead of the simple fiery disembodied head.

The production values for this film are extraordinary to look at. They went with some attractive period finery and scenery to give this a proper fairytale look at it’s a nice contrast to see all that beauty and finery in such a horror movie. The makeup effects are also pretty cool when you see the servants turned into zombies as well as when Claudia disguises herself as the old woman. There’s a weird little thing to praise but I like the design of the glass coffin as well since it’s implied the miners fashioned it out of the stained glass windows in their home. Then there’s the creepy raven and the yellow-eyed wolves. And don’t get me started on the eerie shrine Claudia sets up for her dead baby son.

The performances could be the only real flaw here; the director seems to have done his best to make sure no humour entered the film at all so it does seem like a melodrama at times. Then there are a couple of plot developments that don’t really get any explanation. We never find out how or why the servants got turned into zombies or where the magic mirror comes from. Then there’s Lilli waking up from her coma. I finally saw exactly how it happened when I watched it back – her eyes are closed when she’s lowered into the ground, but they open when Will drops some earth on the coffin. Stuff like that is easy to miss so it could be a bit frustrating for some viewers.

Well, that’s one fairytale down. There are other fairytales on my list (I did grow up with Disney after all) but it might be a bit ironic that I love dark and gothic fairytales and then I have the proper deconstruction of one so low on my list. But whatever irony there is aside, it’s an interesting film to watch if you want to get a grip on what fairytales used to be like. You can show it to your kids if you want, but that’s only if you want to explain the incest subtext, the attempted rape and all the scary images to them. Until next time, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.

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