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Review: Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997)

Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997)

Directed by: Michael Cohn

Premise: A gothic retelling of the Snow White story that reframes the fairytale as a horrific family drama. A nobleman (Sam Neill) marries a mysterious woman (Sigourney Weaver) and the new queen comes into conflict with her stepdaughter (Monica Keena).

What Works: Snow White: A Tale of Terror is an attempt to tell the Snow White story in a way that reflects the original Brothers Grimm story, which was quite violent and dark in its original version. This film isn’t a strict adaptation of the original source but as an attempt to present a fresh take on the story it succeeds. This film is reminiscent of Roger Corman’s film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories which were produced throughout the 1960s such as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death. Like those films, Snow White: A Tale of Terror has a gothic style, impressive costumes and art direction, and a gleefully macabre approach to its source. Among the many adaptations of this story, this film is unique with its less than flattering portrayal of Snow White. In this film the girl is named Lilli and her relationship with her stepmother is antagonistic but that antipathy is not entirely one-sided. In most versions of this story Snow White is physically ideal but also perfectly tempered. The Snow White of A Tale of Terror is insensitive and cruel to her stepmother, at least at first. Snow White/Lilli’s actions make her much more authentic, give her space to grow as a character, and ground the fantastical conflict in something recognizably real by the audience. This also creates a certain amount of sympathy for the queen, who is played by Sigourney Weaver. Her growing evil is a pathological madness that stems from her vanity but also from her inability to take on the role of mother. This is a psychologically complex portrayal of the character that makes the film much more provocative. Snow White: A Tale of Terror also takes an original approach with the seven dwarfs. In this film only one of them is a dwarf  and the rest of the normal sized men who constitute a band of outlaws. Like the film’s portrayal of the queen these characters are psychologically and physically damaged by the world they live in and they gradually become more sympathetic. Above all, Snow White: A Tale of Terror is distinguished by its willingness to be nasty. Because fairytales are usually regarded as children’s stories they are often dismissed as trivial or juvenile and those making fairytale films often take the edge off the stories to sanitize them for family audiences. Snow White: A Tale of Terror goes the other way and as a result it gets at the themes that made this story memorable in the first place.

What Doesn’t: Snow White: A Tale of Terror is a low budget picture and that shows in parts. There are a few edits that are a little awkward and some of the special effects have dated. The other notable flaw of the film is the picture’s disuse of Sam Neill as the father. The filmmakers don’t quite know what to do with him and the character is marginalized for much of the film.

DVD extras: Trailer, image gallery.
Bottom Line: Snow White: A Tale of Terror is flawed but it remains a unique and fascinating take on the fairytale. While it isn’t exactly a movie for families it is worth a look by those interested in the darker aspects of fantasy filmmaking.

Episode: #391 (June 10, 2012)