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'Snow White' on Prozac

No seven dwarfs, no Prince Charming. In this Grimm remake, Sigourney Weaver plays the stepmother as a schizophrenic and the girl bludgeons her nanny. OK, kids, now off to bed.

May 05, 1996|Peter Green | Peter Green is a freelance writer based in Prague

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Five hours of makeup have transformed Sigourney Weaver, the stunning 6-foot heroine of three (and soon to be four) "Alien" films into a snaggle-toothed, hunchbacked, gnarled hag. Layers of finely sculpted dermaplast, the latest thing in fake skin, give her a bald pate with a fringe of long gray hair, while dentures flush out her teeth and her ears would make Alfred E. Neuman jealous.

"I'm not disfigured," Weaver protests as a reporter does a double take. "I'd say I'm quite attractive for a woman of 125."

She pulls out a snapshot of Sam Neill standing next to her in her witch garb and looking distinctly unamused.

"It's such a pleasure to run up and scare people between takes," she says. "[Sam] hated it. I'd come around and I'd pet him. It made him so uncomfortable. I told him, 'Oh, dearie, you make me want to be 50 again."

Weaver has ventured across the Atlantic and into makeup to star as Claudia, the evil stepmother in "The Grimm Brothers' Snow White," one of three current live-action film projects whose titles--if not their actual content--will conjure memories of Disney animated classics. Martin Landau stars as Gepetto in "The Adventures of Pinocchio," due out in July from New Line Cinema, and Glenn Close stars as Cruella DeVil in "101 Dalmatians," due from Disney in November. (Disney consulted with Interscope, the producer, on a few points on this "Snow White," which bears little resemblance to its 1937 animated version, but is expected to pass on distributing it. If so, the film will be shopped elsewhere.)

One recent week, after several days' shooting in a Gothic castle in the Czech Republic, the cameras were rolling on the mammoth sound stages of Barrandov Studios in Prague.

First it was the fiery, blood-spattered finale, in which Snow White (16-year-old Monica Keena) bashes her horribly disfigured nanny, Ilsa (Prague-based American Dale Wyatt), with a crossbow. Then came the poison apple scene.

"Kids and adults thinking of the original Disney classic won't be the audience for us," says producer Tom Engelman. "This film has a dark, twisted, subversive quality to it."

Indeed, there's no "Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go." Snow White doesn't talk to the sparrows; there isn't even a real Prince Charming to come and carry her away. Instead, two louts, one a mother's bland dream, the other a mother's racy nightmare, battle for her very adult affections.

Nor is there a happy band of funny little fellows accompanying Snow White; instead Lily, as she's called here, joins the Outcasts, a band of seven aesthetically challenged societal rejects who make their home in an abandoned abbey. With only one genuine dwarf, John Edward Allen, in their midst, the outcasts are disfigured, displeasing blackguards--including an excommunicated priest and a child molester.

And the new talking mirror is no harmless oracle. Here, it is a manipulative evil spirit given to Claudia by her late mother, a sorceress. Weaver plays both the face in the mirror and the three-dimensional stepmother (who occasionally dons the hag disguise).

"It's not just a talking mirror," Engelman says on the set, launching into a discourse on Bruno Bettelheim and Nietzsche and even providing photocopies of some of their writings. He developed the script from rereading the original Grimm Brothers tale, which has little in common with Disney's cartoon.

Like a literature professor addressing a class of undergrads, Engelman speaks in rhetorical questions laying out theories he has been developing for more than three years: "What was it at its core that gave the tale its lasting power? The wicked stepmother, the blood, the snow, a girl cast out in the wild. Seven strange people find her. It's really Freudian.

"What's the metaphor of the mirror? In our film, you can see it as the [Freudian] id of this psychotic woman--or you can see it as supernatural. It's magic that's for a modern audience," Engelman says.

"You play on what you know is the universal expectation of the tale. Through the audience's familiarity with the tale, you can exploit their expectations of where the story turns, and play on those expectations, violate them," says director Mike Cohn, a former film school professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

"Remember Bambi meets Godzilla? That's what you can do to a familiar story," adds Engelman, recalling the 1969 cartoon short where a massive Godzilla hoof squashes a peacefully grazing Bambi. In this case, it's more like Walt Disney meets "Fatal Attraction," and a return to the original, dark and evil fairy tale.

The Brothers Grimm didn't invent the tale of Snow White; they were olden-day anthropologists, recording German folk tales. Engelman, who did considerable research on the subject, points out that the Snow White story exists in some form in nearly every society whose oral tradition has been studied--from Finland to sub-Saharan Africa. It is often a tale for adults, not children.

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