Friday, April 30, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Wicked Stepmother (1989)

So we come to the end. And what an ignominious end it is: Bette Davis' final film is a dismal horror-comedy from noted genre auteur Larry Cohen, the man behind such camp classics as the It's Alive series, The Stuff and the Maniac Cop movies. Cohen's work can have a sort of gonzo pulp charm, and he's great at churning out high-concept nonsense (although he hasn't directed a film in years, Cohen is still a prolific screenwriter, responsible for movies like Phone Booth, Cellular and Captivity). This is not his best moment, either, and Wicked Stepmother shows obvious signs of being thrown together on the fly, after Davis walked off the set shortly following the start of production. Her character, evil witch Miranda Pierpoint, disappears less than halfway into the movie, never to be seen again.

Cohen does his best to make this unexpected snafu seem like part of the plot, but the movie is so haphazardly constructed that I wondered if maybe more than Davis' part was restructured during shooting. Theoretically the movie is about a witch who marries into various families and then wreaks havoc on her new relatives. But Miranda has to get switched out for her daughter/rival (their relationship is one of the movie's many confused plot points) Priscilla (Barbara Carrera), thanks to Davis' early exit. Cohen manages to keep Miranda in the plot by transmuting her into a cat (sort of) and using some random pre-recorded Davis dialogue in a few places, but overall it plays like exactly what it is: a last-minute desperation move to keep the movie in production.

Not that this movie deserved to be kept in production, with its nonsensical plot, terrible performances, awkward pacing and lame set pieces. Miranda and Priscilla never do anything remotely scary and are barely even sinister, and the humor is a bunch of groan-worthy slapstick. Davis was right to get out when she did, and she looks emaciated and frail whenever she's onscreen (she passed away before the movie was released, and was probably lucky never to have to see it). Just two years before, Davis used her fragility to great advantage in the lovely if insubstantial drama The Whales of August, but here she seems far too weak to play a powerful evil sorceress. It's the kind of role that the Davis of the '60s could have really thrown herself into, if it were written better. Here, Davis is just painful to watch, and the movie as a whole is equally unbearable. Better to remember Davis as the sharp-tongued seductress of the '30s and '40s, or the fearsome shrew of the '60s, or even the retiring old lady of the '70s and '80s. Anything but this.

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