Somewhere in Medieval Germany, a runaway carriage bearing nobleman Frederick Hoffman (Sam Neill) and his pregnant wife crashes in the woods. As wild wolves savage the coachman to death, Frederick is forced to cut his newborn baby out from the belly of his pregnant wife. Years later, he and his young doting daughter Lily (Taryn Davis) welcome into their household their new wife and stepmother, the beautiful but strangely sinister Lady Claudia (Sigourney Weaver) who brings along a mysterious sealed mirror. Not only does Lily notice her stepmom conversing with the mirror, one night she is horrified as it murders her nursemaid. Upon suffering a tragic miscarriage, Lady Claudia becomes completely unhinged and vents her frustrations upon Lily (Monica Keena), who has now grown into a beautiful woman. Rather than a huntsman, Claudia tasks her mute brother, Gustave (Miroslav Taborsky) to dismember Lily in the woods and bring back her heart. But as everyone knows, events do not go according to plan...
As the title suggests, Snow White: A Tale of Terror aimed for a more overtly horrific take on the familiar fairytale, dragging the Grimm Brothers fable back to what was presumed to be its dark psychological roots. Along with the more lighthearted Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998), this was part of the Nineties cycle of revisionist fairytales that was soon followed by the postmodern fairytale spoofs ushered in by Shrek (2001) before climaxing with the Disney studio's spirited riposte, Enchanted (2007). Right now we are in the midst of what might be termed an action-fairytale wave with the likes of Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) along with the currently in-production Maleficent based on Sleeping Beauty, films that ditch the sarcasm and psychoanalysis to get back to old fashioned rollicking romance.
On the surface the screenplay, written by prolific television scribes Thomas E. Scollosi and Deborah Serra, seems pitched towards a rigorous dissection of the Snow White myth in the vein of novelist Angela Carter. Unfortunately the film is fatally undone by its inconsistent tone along with several notable lapses in logic and moments of outright incoherence. It is never entirely sure what it wants to be: psychological horror film, a historical romance with darkly fantastic undertones, or even one of those reinterpreted fairytales with gutsy proto-feminist heroines that Disney managed to pull off throughout the Nineties. To begin with, Lady Claudia is portrayed in an intriguingly sympathetic light, struggling with the loss of her child and a wilful step-daughter who spurns her attempts to make nice. Yet at the same time she is drawn as a ranting, closet Satanist with an arsenal of spells and an ill-defined bond with her demonic mirror. Similarly, our Snow White archetype exhibits an overfamiliar, Disney-like yearning to venture into the big wide world, but her transition from simpering damsel into avenging angel at the fiery climax is awkwardly handled and consequently unconvincing.
Things go way off the rails after Lily seeks shelter with seven hideously disfigured bandits, who replace the fairytale's seven dwarfs, a real rogues gallery including familiar character actors like Brian Glover, Chris Bauer and Brian Pringle. This motley lot taunt and abuse poor Lily to no end, but when the nastiest of the bunch (Anthony Brophy) tries to rape her, suddenly revert to their traditional roles. Even though Lily already has a Prince Charming in the form of dull medical student Peter (David Conrad), sparks fly between her and the surly-but-studly Will (Gil Bellows, from Ally McBeal). However when Claudia enacts her magical revenge, several of the dwarf substitutes die novelty deaths in the manner of The Omen: buried alive, crushed by a tree, etc.
Despite the inconsistent script, Sigourney Weaver delivers an admirably subtle and nuanced performance that earned her an Emmy nomination (the film premiered on cable television prior to a theatrical release overseas) and in her guise as a grotesque hag sports some impressively nightmarish makeup. The lovely Monica Keena sports the perfect fresh-faced complexion and is suitably winsome as "Snow White", but seems understandably uncertain as to the exact nature of her revised role. After some choice early roles, including a stint on teen soap Dawson's Creek, Keena never quite achieved the breakout stardom she deserved off the back of her stellar turn in Crime + Punishment in Suburbia (2000). Lately she has been mired in minor horror films like Freddy vs. Jason (2003), Left in Darkness (2006) and the remake of Night of the Demons (2009) that make poor use of her genuine talent.
As directed by Michael Cohn, fresh off his serial killer thriller When the Bough Breaks (1994), the film is dour and gloomy rather than scary despite an abundance of jarring, though non-explicit violence and sexual content. Still, if you ever wanted to see Sigourney Weaver writhing naked under transparent sheets or torturing Sam Neill on an upturned crucifix, this is the Snow White movie for you.