I have often alluded to Disney's 1983 live-action fantasy adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, with Jack Clayton at the helm, as being the studio's first bonafide horror film - but, of course, that is not taking into consideration their celebrated debut feature-length animation Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937) which is, make no mistake, a horror story. Let's face it, if something so cherished and adored by generations of film-goers, young and old alike, could also inspire the Italian master of the macabre, Dario Argento, to create his supernatural masterpiece Suspiria a good forty years later, even down to utilising its lush colour scheme and frame set-ups, then it must have a pretty dark side to it.
“Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
Tying-in with so many modern-day personal makeover shows on TV, the vindictive harridan who starts the ball rolling in Disney's classic take on the Brothers Grimm fairytale - she's not so much a MILF, as a QILF ... you work it out - gets the wrong answer from her routine enquiry of the mystic mirror-man and sets her dark heart on plucking out the one that is beating within her unwitting victor's chest. And a chance meeting with an implausibly polite prince doesn't help her when the evil Witch-Queen thinks nothing of having her nearest beauty rival slain in order to preserve her “fairest of them all” reputation, and poor innocent Snow White, the true beauty of the realm, has no choice but to flee the castle and seek sanctuary in the enchanted woods that lie beyond. Befriended by the animals of the forest and taken in by a kindly troop of gemstone-mining Dwarfs, she hides out in relative peace and harmony ... until the wicked Queen, discovering that her stepdaughter still lives, sets out to claim her title once and for all. And she most certainly won't be playing “fair” when she comes calling at that quaint little cottage in the glen.
With a narrative that is absolutely the epitome of threadbare, it is a cinch that Snow White, as depicted here, would not pass muster as a feature-length drama today. The sophistication of the studio's output from The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast onwards, as well as the enormous popularity of CG animation would render the tale flat and superficial no matter how gorgeous its visuals may be. Thus, there is a lot of disbelief suspension that must be made by some modern audiences, who may not have been brought up on such delightfully simple storytelling. But Snow White belongs to a different era entirely, an era when just experiencing such a gloriously colourful transportation of mind and soul literally could be considered as a magical event. Things like Bambi introduced tragedy and the sombre note of loss to young imaginations, whilst Pinocchio and Dumbo ushered in a complete new strand of sumptuous surrealism. The studio was smuggling metaphor and subtext right in through the back door. But Snow White, with its playful roster of woodland denizens - all so keen to help the lost maiden - and those diminutive yet diligent scamps, with their completely un-sexual adoration of the young girl in their midst sets up a cautionary tale of an altogether more sinister kind. The message, as simple and as in-yer-face as it is possible to get, purely seeks to instil in us the awareness that we can, sadly, trust no-one ... least of all those ostensibly closest to us. Unless, of course, they're vertically challenged and number around seven. But, drawing on that Gok-Wan makeover show analogy once more, Snow White's confidence crisis and the Queen's warped envy can be seen as a searing indictment of today's fashion/beauty/celebrity besotted culture. If we can't “better” it, we'd best destroy it. The Queen's greedy motivation may as well be tabloid-led.
So, this “simple” little fable is now a social commentary, as well as a horror film. Uncle Walt certainly knew what he was doing and his first full-length foray into cell-drawn radiance feels as timely and as relevant in today's self-conscious world as, perhaps, it never has done before.
“Run, child! Run away! Hide! In the woods!”
Anybody else out there think the beer-bellied huntsman that the Queen assigns to execute Snow White looks like Ronnie Barker in one of his many period disguises? But, seriously, just how downright nasty is this sequence? The gleam of the knife matching the blood-crazed madness in the assassin's eyes, that dreadful shadow falling upon an unsuspecting girl, alone and helpless, and horribly still within sight of home. Never a comfortable scene, it now carries an even greater potency in light of the despicable crimes that seem almost everyday in our treacherous society. Which, of course, was the point of the Grimms' fairytales - warnings to the fragile, the gullible and the vulnerable. Watch it with your kids and there's a whole new angle of tension wrung out of it ... and this only improves the film and its timeless power.
Of course, whilst Snow White is nothing more than a moral cipher, a figurehead of innocence, beauty and wholesomeness, our main company is to be found in the welcome and endlessly entertaining antics of the magnificent “little” seven. Of the mob, only Doc, the ostensible leader, becomes tiresome. With his soon-irritating word-swap and tongue-tied verbal buffoonery set on auto-pilot, he dissipates some of the really quite unique fervour of what is surely a perverse group relationship. Without going through all of these immortalised mini-miners, one by one, it is a cinch that both Grumpy and Dopey are the firm favourites out of the floppy bunch. Whilst a potential sequel to Snow White, primarily featuring these guys, was once on the cards - as the extra features will abundantly reveal - further escapades with them would never manifest themselves, and this is a shame, indeed. Of all the characters created in these early Disney outings, the Dwarfs are the ones that we would most want to see more of. Their group-dynamic clearly works and part of their appeal lies in the fact that there is also so much else to discover about their world. Who employs them, for instance? Where did they come from? What do they intend to do with all the wealth that they unearth? Are they related to Gimli, and have they ever seen how advanced the mining operation is down at Moria? Happenstance and thematic texture dictate that the loveable rogues are merely there in the right place and at the right time. We can thank the Grimms for their inclusion, as well as the Magic Mirror (neither of which appeared in the first versions of the folk-tale), but it was Uncle Walt who assigned the Dwarfs with names and personalities that would become indelible in popular culture.
“We must search every crook and nanny ... d'oh ... every nooked cranny ... d'ah ... every crooked fa- ”
Steady on now, Doc.
Taking the Biblical apple as the method of destruction - a temptation fraught with fateful consequences, as ever - the film alludes to stories even older than those that the Brothers Grimm peddled. The fundamental fears of abandonment, banishment and murder are at the crux of Snow White, yet the tale is also an allegory of puberty and adolescence. Snow White is forced to grow up and face up to the woman that she has become, and the threat that this fact poses not only to herself, but to those around her, who may be corrupted by her sweet innocence. You don't have to take any of this metaphorical theorising seriously to enjoy a simple fable, naturally, but such coy melodrama is never, never as gentle nor as unassuming as you may at first think. The Brothers Grimm knew of the dangers that lurked outside the apparently cosy bosom of the home and Uncle Walt, too, guessed that tapping into these morally subversive territories would educate as well as entertain Middle Americans sitting all-too comfortably in their homes.
“Shame on you for frightening a poor old lady ...”
I will say that I find the witch-queen, Maleficant, in Sleeping Beauty to be a little bit more terrifying than this one, but that isn't to say that Snow White's jealous stepmother fails to put the frighteners on me. Typically, she is also extremely seductive, cementing that most potent of devilish tricks - that the worst and most profound evil is rarely ugly on the outside and, therefore, far easier to fall for. Strikingly elegant and providing that unique sexual frisson of mature temptation, she pouts with serene power and slinks about her chambers with a dangerous allure that would be copied and aped by the likes of Morticia Addams, Lily Munster, Elvira and innumerable other Gothic vamps and vixens. Too bad she then has to go and muck it all up by going-crone on us. You've just got to love the deliciously depraved moment when she kicks the water-jug out of the reach of a prisoner long-dead of thirst and starvation, his parched bones crumbling in final defeat as she cackles in morbid ecstasy. The funny thing is that you can't imagine the Queen, as her more sexy self, doing such an outwardly callous act, can you? It is too far beneath her regal image. But as a hag-witch ... well, anything goes.
“Jimminy crickets! What a monster!”
Causing some concerns with the British censors, what with a knife-wielding huntsmen poised on the brink of carving out Snow White's heart, some wholly macabre, Evil Dead-influencing demonic trees, and that Witch plotting depravity and concocting sick potions in her frightening dungeon-lair, the film became somewhat notorious and, leaving Argento aside for a moment, is often cited as containing some serious shudders that, once seen in those formative years, never leave you. Ray Harryhausen's diabolical sorcerer, Sakurah, in The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (see separate BD review) even takes his cue from this earlier conjurer's feng-shui, but he had the decency to make room for a pet dragon. Even James Cameron alluded to the eerie menace that the film purveys in Aliens, with Ripley, who is actually referred to as Snow White at one stage, butting heads against another beastly Queen presiding over a nightmarish realm. The Queen, back here, seems to lead a double-life - spectral monarch by day and crusading bogeyman by night - and this element, glibly brushed-over by Walt, only adds to the decadent flavour of her poisoned kingdom.
“Dip the apple in the brew ... let the Sleeping Death seep through.”
The fear element is also marvellously and very insidiously carried over into the arrival of the dwarfs back at their cottage, unaware that they have a guest. We know that they have nothing to fear from whoever is sleeping upstairs - but they don't. And this means that the film actually begins to conjure some level of suspense as we watch them quietly and nervously investigate the premises and then creep, uneasily, up the stairs. Snow White's fear-gripped race through a forest transformed by her own terrors into something resembling a Freudian hallucination has been imitated many times over, but the best examples would have to be Jessica Harper whirling through a demoniacally disintegrating dance-school to escape from an even nastier witch in Suspiria, and the older sister being pursued by what amounts to a renegade childhood in Neil Jordan's werewolf fantasy, The Company Of Wolves. Only a brief sequence from Disney, it is nevertheless as pure an example of primal horror as you can get. Then we have the terrific suspense of the evil Queen, now changed into an old, warty-nosed basket-lady to throw her innocent quarry off the scent, as she convinces the girl to take a bite from the poisoned apple. This is classic cinema, and a fundamental device - the immediate jeopardy that Snow White is in being the focus of our attention whilst the helter-skelter heroics of her would-be saviours frantically push the adrenaline, in earnest, from outside the main event - that has been incorporated into every genre and used by practically every action director worth their salt. To a modern audience, this race-against-time finale isn't as satisfying as it was to their highly thrilled predecessors. We all hanker after another set-piece, don't we? Somehow, the witch is defeated much too easily and all that incredible villainy and towering malevolence is gone so swiftly that we half believe it may all be just another trick that the witch is pulling. As staggeringly exciting as it all is - chaotic storms, a wild mob of avengers and a crucial boulder that looks like it carried on rolling all the way into a South American temple to lie in wait for a certain Indiana Jones - it just whets the appetite for more violent extravagance that never comes. As the years went by, Disney would learn how to unravel extra plot, more finite characterisation and to create a more even pace. But, without a shred of doubt, they cut their teeth here, in what would prove to be an exceedingly bold and successful experiment.
“To age my voice, an old hag's cackle. To whiten my hair, a scream of fright ...”
Watching the film now, I am still surprised at how well the animators achieved a realistic sense of movement. We all know that rotoscoping techniques were used initially, but then proved to be too complicated and long-winded for Disney, so were ultimately scrapped. But the use of human subjects to provide motion guidelines evidently provided the fantastic fluid subtlety that we see so expertly woven into the frame. And look at the dexterity of the shadows and the atmosphere that they evoke - even in a scene as simple and relaxed as Snow White first going up the stairs in the cottage and opening the bedroom door. You can see the influence of Murnau and Lang at work here, although Disney, himself, cites James Whale as another visual forebear whose style had an impact on the film's look. Wonderful shots depicting fast-action through the woods have a sense of scale and depth that are remarkable. When Snow White first escapes and the camera appears to track with her until she runs deeper into the frame, for instance, is a dynamic and thoroughly modern-looking shot. Tumbling Dwarfs and stampeding animals possess an acrobatic, though mesmerising brilliance that owes its wonderful choreography to nothing more than the natural world, the animators having studied their subjects very, very carefully. The watchword, despite the fantastical setting and narrative, was always “realism”, and it is this crucial guideline that propelled Disney's style to the top of the league.
However, visuals are one thing. The period songs that Disney augmented his films with, especially here and in Sleeping Beauty, are, frankly, terrible. That may be a sacrilegious thing to say as far as some people are concerned, but those high, keening voices warbling such plaintiff ditties as “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and “I'm Wishing” are something that I have never been able to abide. A product of the times, of course, but my skin literally crawls when those sycophantic voices take flight. Mind you, the same cannot be said of the immortal “Heigh-ho” though, can it? Here, at least, the sheer infectious nature of the daily-routine ballad makes it a winner. If the Gremlins can be swept along with its joyful march, then who are we to argue?
A classic, folks. Many of us grew up on clips from this, and most other Disney films, on Saturday morning kids' TV shows, without actually seeing it in complete form until much later when, ultimately, it may have disappointed. But the film's lack of story and weird jumble of horror and humour give it the floating unpredictability of a dream. More of an emotional string of images than an intellectual narrative, such as Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin or The Lion King, and more primal in its fun and fear than say, Jungle Book or The Aristocats, Snow White occupies a unique platform not only in the history of animated films, but in Disney's own irresistible cannon.
Needless to say, it comes with the highest recommendation.
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