She'll Eat Your Heart Out
Snow White: A Tale of Terror
Fairy tales were, originally, far more horrific and gruesome than the versions we have now. They were morality stories, teaching good little kiddies how to be even better little kiddies. Be kind and good (Cinderella). Don't try for more than your station (The Little Mermaid). Don't go sniffing around bears and eating their porridge (Goldilocks). If you failed to do these things, you'd end up bloodied and beaten and dead. Classic fairy tales were hardcore.
Even in the modern versions there's still a slight element of horror. Disney might have sanitized The Little Mermaid but you still had a girl losing her voice to get legs, an evil queen trying to steal her soul, and a violent battle at the end. Yes, it all works out for her in this version of the story (as opposed to the original where she gives up and dies), but the horror comes baked in. Snow White is pretty awful when you consider the step-mother trying to kill the girl, the creepy dwarves, and repeated attempts on the girl's life even after she flees the castle. May ass well make it into a horror story.
That's the thought process, clearly, behind the 1997 production Snow White: A Tale of Terror. Naturally, because we think of fairy tales as "bright and cheery" stories (thanks, Disney), a horror film based on one of these stories seems odd and subversive to the general public. But when you really consider it, a step-mother who's also a witch trying to kill her step-daughter, and racks up quite the body count in the process, is the perfect recipe for a horror tale. Plus the film lets Sigourney Weaver vamp it up, and that's never a bad thing.
The film opens with an idyllic carriage ride for Lord Frederick Hoffman (Sam Neill) and his lovely wife Lilliana (Joanna Roth). She's pregnant with their first child, and the two are eager to get home and enjoy their warm manor. Unfortunately, wolves attack the carriage, causing a massive wreck, and Lilliana is horribly injured. Knowing she will die, she has her husband gut the baby from her, killing the woman but saving the child. In honor of his wife, Frederick names his new daughter Lilli.
Lilli (played as a child by Taryn Davis and then as an adult by Monica Keena) grows up as a precocious but sweet child. She's loved by her father, and the servants around her. But she doesn't much care for her new step-mother, Claudia (Sigourney Weaver), when the new woman moves in. That leads to years of the two of them not getting along, even as Lilly grows into a woman. Claudia is jealous of the place her step-daughter holds in her husband's heart, despite all that Claudia tries to do. When, during a ball, Claudia miscarries their first child, the son Frederick always wanted, and ends up unable to conceive again, something within Claudia snaps. That's when she turns wicked and taps into darker magic, evil magic to have her revenge against the girl who stole it all from her.
Let's start by getting the bad part of this film out of the way: for a film called "a Tale of Terror", this production of Snow White really isn't frightening at all. It has some a few creepy moments, a couple of bits of gore, but not anything that would really elicit screams from the general public. But, then "a Tale to Make You Mildly Uncomfortable in Fits and Starts" just doesn't have the same ring to it. The movie really needed to up the horror to get up to the caliber of its own name.
Part of the issue, I think, is that the film doesn't really know what to do with itself. Is the horror supposed to come from what Snow White goes through. If so, it needed to up its game and give us more gore, more scares, more thrills in her storyline. There's her initial chase through the woods, and then she later witnesses a mine collapse and, later still, a moment when the trees in the woods try to fall on her. These are action-packed moments, but hardly scary by any measure. Those aren't the same thing.
A more interesting avenue would be watching the step-mothers descent into madness. The film kind of flirts with this for a bit, after she loses her son. We get a moment where she's looking into her mirror and then envisions herself beautiful and fair once more. She talks to herself, convinces herself that it's all Lilli's fault, and then begins plotting the girl's demise. This right here feels like the film flirting with the idea of the magic mirror but making it all in Claudia's head. If it had followed that logic and turned Claudia into a slasher killer of some kind, that could have been wickedly interesting. But now, then it stops playing with that idea and commits to the step-mother being a witch, and the film loses something.
Frankly, the film is at it's most interesting when it lets Weaver just be an evil queen. She clearly has a ball playing the heavy in this film, and the movie gets a lot of mileage out of her wandering around, vamping it up, enjoying the fruits of her wicked deeds. A scene where she thinks she's eating a stew made from Snow White's corpse is a particular delight for her performance alone. If the movie could have given us more of this then it really could have worked wonders. But then, of course, it would be the step-mother's movie, and not Snow White's, so we lose that angle.
On Lilli's side, the dwarves are replaced with a band of ruffians -- Gil Bellows as Will, Miroslav Taborsky as Gustav, Brian Glover as Lars, Andrew Tiernan as Scar, Anthony Brophy as Rolf, Chris Bauer as Conrad, Bryan Pringle as Father Gilbert, and John Edward Allen as Bart -- and her initial dealings with them are filled with ill intentions (on their part). An interesting idea would have been to follow this, to see just how evil these guys really were, but instead Lilli's kindness makes them all (well, all but one, and he leaves the film early) into better people. It's a nice side story but hardly feels like real horror.
Really, the film struggles because, despite it's R rating, it's a pretty tame and bloodless affair. There is plenty of talent in front of the screen, and a lot of money was spent to turn this into a handsome production (and it really is quite a well made film when it comes to set design and costuming). But on the story front, when it comes down to delivering a horror flick based on Snow White, this Tale of Terror just doesn't commit.