FILMS

Death springs eternal

Two new films find laughs in the afterlife

VICTOR DWYER August 10 1992
FILMS

Death springs eternal

Two new films find laughs in the afterlife

VICTOR DWYER August 10 1992

Death springs eternal

FILMS

Two new films find laughs in the afterlife

The dead are being reborn in Hollywood. Pet Sematary II, a movie inspired by Stephen King’s tale of an Indian burial ground where corpses come to life, opens later this summer. And in the fall, vampires will stalk the screen in five movies, including Francis Coppola’s Dracula, The Untold Story and John Landis’s Innocent Blood. Meanwhile, two broad comedies are taking a more lighthearted look at life beyond the grave, each supporting an impressive cast of comically ghoulish talent.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Luke Perry and Paul Reubens star in the story of a reluctant young woman who finds herself battling fanged intruders at her California high school. And in a send-up of society’s obsession with eternal youth and beauty, Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis gleefully overact their way through Death Becomes Her, a heavy-handed tale about the high cost of looking good.

Of the two movies, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the more charming— less self-conscious about its silliness and playing up, rather than stumbling over, its offbeat subject. Much of the movie’s appeal stems from Swanson’s dead-on performance as the pretty, popular and proudly shallow Buffy.

The head of the cheerleading squad at Hemery High, she is a select member of a clique of scatterbrained young women who make it their business to be on the cutting edge of music, crash diets and fashion. (One of Buffy’s friends describes a jacket in a store window as “so five minutes ago.”)

Buffy spends her days traipsing through malls, decorating the gymnasium for school dances and complaining about the injustice of her low grade on a history exam. “Excuse me ' for not knowing about El Salvador,” she whines to her friends as they ride up an escalator. “Like, I’m ever going to Spain anyway.” Then, a man named Merrick pays her a visit. Played with understated campiness by Sutherland, Merrick informs Buffy that she “bears the birthmark, the mark of the coven,” and that it is her destiny to work with him to rid Hemery High of a bothersome, and deadly, infestation of vampires.

No sooner does she put her pompons into

storage than Buffy finds herself, as she describes it, “in a graveyard with a strange man hunting for vampires on a school night.” There, she drives stakes through the hearts of several recently deceased schoolmates who had died with signs of what a local reporter described as “a really gross hickey” on the neck. Before long, Buffy confronts the vampires’ leader, a centuries-old demon named Lothos (Rutger Hauer) and his cackling henchman, Amilyn (Reubens, formerly TV’s Pee-Wee Herman).

As silly as its title suggests, Buffy the Vampire Slayer manages to deliver a sly message about female strength and the fragility of sexual stereotypes. Heartthrob Luke Perry, who plays a hip teenager on Fox TV’s hit series Beverly Hills, 90210, is cast against type as

Pike, a vulnerable young man who faints when confronted with violence. But as Buffy forges a dauntless vampire-fighting heroine from her former empty-headed self, she inspires Pike to discover his own reserves of courage and cool. Frivolous and feminist, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is also eminently fun.

Death Becomes Her, on the other hand, takes a well-worn theme and works it almost to

death. Here, the search for eternal life involves a narcissistic actress named Madeline Ashton (Streep) and her lifelong friend, a stolid book editor named Helen Sharp (Hawn). Ashton, obsessed with the fact that her good looks are declining, steals Sharp’s boyfriend, an insipid but gifted plastic surgeon named Ernest Menville (Willis), and takes him to the altar.

Distraught, Sharp enters a seven-year tailspin during which she doubles her weight and loses her mind. As an enormously plump frump, Hawn exercises her considerable comic talent without ever straining it. In one hilarious scene, a zombie-like Sharp sits in front of her TV replaying Ashton's old movies and devouring a can of instant-cake frosting with her fingers. But Sharp eventually realizes that it is success, rather than excess, that is the best revenge. She sheds her extra weight, dyes her hair a radiant red and writes a wildly successful book about the secrets of looking beautiful.

Sharp’s triumph drives the actress to distraction, and Ashton’s distress gives Streep the chance to engage in some entertaining histrionics. And she portrays the character’s monstrous selfabsorption with gusto. After Ashton drinks a potion that

promises eternal youth, she preens seductively before a mirror as her wrinkles disappear, her buttocks grow firmer and her breasts lift and separate. But her new lease on life is short-lived. When she returns home that evening, she is drawn into a violent quarrel with her husband, who kills her by pushing her down the staircase. Although she is clinically dead, the potion dooms her to a living death: she continues to walk and talk as her flesh begins to rot.

From there, an already ponderous and convoluted plot spins mindlessly out of control. Despite an array of impressive special effects, including a particularly inventive twist on the famous head-swivelling scene in The Exorcist, Death Becomes Her dies its own slow and painful death.

VICTOR DWYER