Aclassic fairy tale receives appropriately grim treatment in “Snow White: A Tale of Terror,” but atmospherics ultimately overwhelm story and character in this handsome telepic. Sigourney Weaver’s interp of an elegant, evil stepmother is the most complex element in the story of Oedipal rivalry, yet she too is undone by an abundance of gargoyles and gore.
Filmed on locations in Prague and at Film Studios Barrandov, the Czech Republic, by Polygram Filmed Entertainment and Interscope Communications. Executive producers, Ted Field, Robert W. Cort, Scott Kroopf; producer, Tom Engelman; co-producer, Tim Van Rellim; director, Michael Cohn; writers, Tom Szollosi, Deborah Serra; based on the fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers; Pics opens with the tragic death of a pregnant woman upon a beautiful but menacing landscape of snow. Her husband, Lord Hoffman (Sam Neill), must tear the infant from the womb, in the first of the story’s two episodes of bloody, tortured childbirth. Tom Szollosi and Deborah Serra’s script then intros Claudia (Weaver), who arrives at Hoffman’s castle seven years later, on the eve of their wedding. His young daughter, who mourns and adores the mother she never knew, does not take kindly to Claudia’s appearance on the scene.
Pic jumps ahead nine years to find Lady Claudia pregnant, her husband praying for a son, and his beautiful daughter, Lilli (Monica Keena), yearning to leave a place that doesn’t feel like home. The stillbirth of a boy (whose body is retrieved from the fire by Claudia’s mute magician brother, played by Miroslav Taborsky) sets in motion the chain of events whereby an increasingly deranged and vengeful Claudia seeks guidance from her mirror and Lilli takes refuge in the woods with a band of outcasts.
This central seg of pic suffers from a decided lack of momentum. There’s an unclear sense of time elapsed (but a definite feeling, for the viewer, of time dragging), and Lilli’s captor/saviors, with their stock bad-guy mugging, have a cartoonish quality that evokes an unfortunate comparison to Disney’s seven dwarfs. We’re supposed to sympathize with these misshapen, scruffy fellows as victims of Crusaders and an intolerant society, but not even their leader (Gil Bellows), whom Lilli falls in love with, comes to life as a fully realized character.
Director Michael Cohn and d.p. Mick Southon make good use of exquisite locations in the Czech countryside, and designers Gemma Jackson and Marit Allen create an intriguing interior world of medieval finery amid shadowy alcoves and twisting corridors. But with the exception of Weaver, Cohn fails to elicit strong performances from his cast. Neill has little to do, and Keena and Bellows are bland as the young lovers who should be charged with righteous fury over the injustices that have befallen them.
While action and ornate special effects are well orchestrated in final section, the requisite suspense is missing as Lilli returns to confront her stepmother. Weaver’s (and the writers’) attempts to infuse the story with some psychological depth fall by the wayside as sleight-of-hand prevails. Good to look at, this “Snow White” isn’t the chilling experience it should be.