a Primal Root written review
I’ve never seen a movie like it. That’s probably the most accurate critique I can give Larry Cohen’s jaw-droppingly bizarre and nonsensical 1989 supernatural comedy opus, ‘Wicked Stepmother’. A forgotten oddity of the VHS era, probably best known for containing Hollywood empress Bette Davis in her final screen performance, ‘Wicked Stepmother’ has got to be some kind of hallucinatory cinematic comedy milestone. Who knows if Cohen & co intended this movie to be such a rapid-fire array of awkward moments, dumbfounding performances and cheesy effects. All I know is that it all comes together as an if not totally enjoyable film, certainly an outlandishly botched witch’s brew movie delight. One thing that may be said with total confidence for ‘Wicked Stepmother’, you will never, EVER see another like it.
This fiasco begins with a police investigation led by TV’s Tom Bosley who you may remember from ‘Happy Days’ (RIP) or if your grandparents were fans of the ‘Father Dowling Mysteries’. His mission? To locate an evil witch with a penchant for marrying her way into families and using her powers to make them unimaginably wealthy before robbing them blind, shrinking them to the size of plastic army men, and stashing them in shoe boxes under the bed. It sure seems like a waste of time for a witch of such immense power. There’s just gotta be a more effective way to maintain a steady cash flow.
The witch in question is Miranda Pierpoint, played by the legendary Bette Davis (RIP) putting forth a stiff monotone and (we can only assume) unintentionally disturbing performance. Miranda has just gotten hitched to an elderly widower, Sam (played by the late, great character actor Lionel Stander with that unmistakably gravely voice). In one of my favorite sight gags of the movie, we see images of Sam’s first wife on his night stand. Low and behold, it is Joan Crawford, Bette Davis’ long time rival.
The new marriage comes as a shock to his adult daughter, hyper-allergenic and moderate psychopath, Jenny (Colleen Camp, who should win some kind of lifetime achievement award for this one, single cringe-inducingly campy performance). Her husband Steve (David ‘I’ve gotta’ Rasche, desperately try to keep up with Colleen’s camp) though surprised by the sudden change in homestead seems to be taking things well, and attempts to mediate between his wife’s control freakery and his new chimney stack of a mother-in-law. Their son Mike (Shawn Donahue, who would play his final role the next year in 1990′s immortal classic, ‘The Willies’) is appropriately willful and mainly just refuses to refer to the new addition ‘grandma’.
To Jenny’s fury, Miranda smokes more than the entire cast of Mad Men, combined, in the families’ WASPy digs. She also cooks, eats, and tempts the family with nothing but grilled meats despite Jenny’s insistence in that everyone bow to the nutritional excellence of her broccoli souffle. Although Steve is clearly inclined to give into Miranda’s politically-incorrect ways, Jenny throws her hubby one of her well-practiced psycho glares and puts the guy back in his place. He hunches over the dining room table to choke down his helping of lettuce and oatmeal while thinking about his genitals and how nice a home Jenny’s made for them in her handbag. Miranda also has a cat which unlocks an avalanche of comedic potential as Jenny is…get this…ALLERGIC to cats! So she spends much of the movie sneezing at inopportune moments and standing around sniffling and delivering her lines with her stuffed up, mongoloid voice. Really. It is a laugh riot. Yeah.
However, my favorite scene in this mayhem shows up early as young Michael is at a beach, unchaperoned, watching some coeds in bikinis bounce & bop around via a game of volleyball. Earlier, Michael has told Melinda he’d never call her “Grandma”, that she can, basically, burn in hell, then proved himself the deeply cool thug he is by popping the collar on his jean jacket and walking away. Apparently he was strutting his way to the beach where his requests to join in the volleyball game were denied. However, as luck would have it, the lovely young witch Priscilla (played byTia Carrera’s sister, Barbara! SHWING!) shows up, complete with beflowered sun hat and black veil and winks at Michael, which apparently bestowed upon him with the power to do front flips over the volleyball net. For what purpose? Who knows. It impresses no one in the game and even seems to piss off the more hyper-hormonal boys of the pack. And yet, poor little 12 year old Michael has caught the eye & libido of a twenty something beach bunny. Unfortunately, as often happens at movie beaches, two buff, blonde dickweeds start kicking sand in Michael’s face while he’s chatting up his new dish. Again, the young lad is in luck as Priscilla gives him yet another power of Filipino Flip fighting through which Michael hops around cracking bimbo dude skulls. All of this results in a scene of total prepubescent wish fulfillment, the busty beach bunny takes off her modest shirt to reveal her ample cleavage and offers herself up to the young man with the unmistakable innuendo, “Come here, I’m gonna show you something…” A goofy grin spreads across Michael’s mug as she leads him off to rock the freckles off his face.
It was around this moment I began to wonder just who was the projected market for this film? It’s a wicked stepmother, fairy tale kiddie charm, sure, but the focus is primarily on adult relationships. In fact, Michael is led off to be statutorily raped, and that’s pretty the last we see of the kid with the exception of him showing up for group shots lasting mere seconds in the final scene. This thing’s obviously not quite for youngins… but the humor is on a pretty even keel for adolescents despite it meandering between adult issues (i.e. marriage difficulties & geriatric homicide) and it’s unchecked childish hokeyness. 99.9 % of the films run time is spent dealing with figuring out how to murder an elderly woman and a married man fantasizing about/having adulterous sex with Tia Carrere’s sister while a writhing cat tail wags around out of her pooper, growing vines in the yard against an painfully-obvious blue screen under the guise of “decorating for the holidays”, answering trivia questions on game shows, and figuring out a way to write Bette Davis out of the movie since she walked off set about two days into production. The leave was publicly attributed to her disgust with the script, though it was later stated that the true cause was her deteriorating health.
How do they write her out, you ask? Remember Priscilla? Well, she and Miranda apparently share the body of a black cat. But, see, both spirits can’t cohabit in one body at the same time. “There’s no room for two people in one cat!” a witch academy instructor exclaims revealing this terrible piece of plotting. So, after Miranda’s 11 minutes or so of screen time are up, she vanishes to be replaced by Priscilla. Don’t fret, gang, the cat Miranda inhabits also smokes as much as she did, so it’s like she never left! In fact, one of the most bizarre moments of the entire film are cutaways to a black cat hand puppet paws holding cigarettes up to it’s little feline mouth and puffing away, it’s unnaturally large, bugged out yellow eyes and dilated pupils nervously darting around in their sockets.
Eventually the detective character shows back up at a clandestine witch class where Jenny also happens to be attending so she can look for answers as to how to get rid of Miranda/Priscilla for good. Priscilla learns a couple words in Latin and is ready to take on Priscilla in head to head in the ultimate blue screen combat! It’s a breathtaking sequence that pulls no punches in the bargain basement action and effects arena. Will Jenny be able to banish the money hungry witches from her home? Or will her family end up pint-sized, broke, and shoe-boxed? To be honest, I was too busy laughing my ass off to care.
The bottom line is that ‘Wicked Stepmother’ is one of those films that must be seen to be truly understood. It’s terrible. I mean, this thing is bad. This sucker is Samurai Cop, Troll 2 level bad. But it is still ridiculously entertaining. The intended jokes all fall flat on their faces, but it is totally made up for with unintentional hilarity. It’s like some kind of surrealist fever dream that just keeps getting more absurd and illogical as it progresses. None of it makes a lick of sense and there are an abundance of moments that will leave you wondering if you just actually witnessed what you did. Better Davis’ performance alone make up for the absurdity of the opening portion of the film. She is never without a cigarette in her hand and recites her dialog in the emotionless drawl of a late 60′s TV robot. Once Bette departs the film, the hammy acting, and cheese ball effects really become the stars of the show and lift this sucker up onto another plateau of Trash Cinema altogether.
I may have said too much already. I don’t want to spoil this sucker for you. But when I look back lovingly upon ‘Wicked Stepmother’, no words can really do this acid trip of a film justice. I’m not sure if exactly if it’s my strong palette for trash that allowed me to enjoy this thing or if it can be experienced by others and be loved just as thoroughly. I was not expecting myself to end up with the affection I now have for this piece of wack-o film making. Please, if you haven’t seen it, do so. And if you have, please, share your thoughts with us here at The Trash Cinema Collective. Again, in the annals of cinema, there is nothing like ‘Wicked Stepmother’.