Love means never having to say, "Why did you amputate all my limbs?"
Philippe Caland had a story concept and a lot of money; now all he needed was a writer. Preferably a female writer, since his idea, which centered around a limbless woman in a box, could potentially raise quite a feminist backlash.
Jennifer Chambers Lynch needed a project, preferably something that would allow her to extricate herself from the shadow of her famous father, David Lynch (director of "Twin Peaks," Blue Velvet, and other eerie fare). At 19, Ms. Lynch's previously published work pretty much consisted of "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer," but she eagerly took Caland's story and, two months later, handed him a screenplay. He was apparently pleased with it, because young Ms. Lynch was chosen to direct the film.
So far, so good; but at casting time, things started getting complicated. Madonna was approached early on for the female lead, but turned it down. Next was Kim Basinger (Batman, My Stepmother was an Alien), not previously known for her high standards in acting roles. She initially said yes, but backed out just before filming. The film's producers sued her for $9 million over this breach of verbal agreement, and won. If the court had been given access to Lynch's script, I'll bet they'd have ruled differently—but more about that later. Basinger finally settled with the producers out of court for $3.8 million, which bankrupted her. Compare that to the puny $1.8 million the film grossed in U.S. theaters.
Why am I telling you all this? Because it's far more interesting than the finished product. Boxing Helena flopped like a quadriplegic skydiver, and with good reason: it's bad. Real bad. This could have been a creepy thriller or a bizarre love story. It could have been a moral tale, or an artistic exploration of new cinematographic territory. It could, at the very least, have been a kinky sex flick. But it isn't any of these things, and it doesn't seem to be trying especially hard to be anything more than an exercise in pointlessness. Oh, it's horror, all right, but it's the kind that makes you afraid to go to the movie theater, not the kind that makes you afraid of things that go bump in the night.
Oh, and despite the cover photo, the box is metaphorical. Helena never actually gets put in a box, although her captor does prop her up in a sort of three-sided shrine for a while (which serves the obvious purpose of hiding the actress's arms and legs). So much for truth in advertising.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Nick Cavanaugh has everything: a palatial home, a charming girlfriend, a lucrative career as a surgeon, and some serious psychological issues. After his mother's death, he fixates on Helena, a pouty woman of low moral fiber who treats him with the same cold disdain his mother once did. While spying on her one night from a tree outside her bedroom window, he observes that she is currently intimately involved with another man, and apparently enjoying it quite a bit more than she did her previous one-night stand with Nick. Fleeing from the scene in a feverish panic, Nick calls his friend Lawrence from a pay phone. "Tell me how I can get her back!" he wails. You'd think Lawrence, an M.D. himself, would recommend psychiatric help at this point, but the only suggestion he can offer is "Don't see her again."
Left to his own devices, Nick invites Helena to a party at his house (recently inherited from his mother). Oddly enough, she accepts, perhaps seeing in this an opportunity both to humiliate Nick and to pique her spiteful boyfriend Ray. Helena tries to embarrass Nick by taking off her dress and frolicking in the fountain in her lacy undergarments, after which she leaves to do naughty things with another party guest. But Helena has forgotten one very important thing: her purse. Nick uses it to lure her back to his house the next day, which she actually falls for. He attempts to charm her in his creepy, fawning way; she is not amused; they argue; she takes a careless step into the road and is bowled over by a plot device in the form of a big red truck.
Now it's clever Dr. Nick to the rescue! We next see him several weeks later, oh-so-tenderly caring for his beloved Helena, whose luscious legs he has, alas, been forced to amputate. To protect her from the stress of the hospital, Nick has thoughtfully performed the operation in his own home, where he is now supervising her recovery. He is only too happy to feed her, fix her hair and makeup, and dress her in what appears to be his mother's clothing. (We can only assume that he empties her bedpan, shaves her armpits, and disposes of her severed limbs with equal delight, since such mundane details never enter the picture.)
Helena rewards his attentions by making his life just the kind of miserable hell he's been missing ever since his mother died. In her own way, she's every bit as warped as he is. Nick is ever so patient with his legless love, but after she tries to strangle him, he decides that the arms will have to go, too. The battle of twisted wills continues to escalate, but alas, it has long since slipped over the edge of absurdity into tedium.
Even if you somehow actually manage to enjoy most of this sorry excuse for a movie, I guarantee that the "surprise ending" will spoil it for you. I was once graded down on a high school creative writing assignment for utilizing the same lame plot twist. If only Jennifer Lynch had taken Mr. Hull's sophomore English class, she would have known better.
In a sensationalistic endeavor such as this, many flaws could be excused. It could be tasteless, confusing, outrageous, crude, absurd, and/or gruesome, and still succeed as a film. The one thing it cannot afford to be is boring, and herein lies Boxing Helena's fatal flaw. It's not suspenseful, eerie, or involving; it's just…flat. The characters don't live, or even work as symbols; the plot doesn't move; the Nick/Helena dialogues drag on and on. Scenes that are meant to be erotic are merely inane, and symbolism intended to be poignant is merely ludicrous.
I said tediousness was its fatal flaw, but I certainly don't mean to imply that was its only flaw. Let's start with the plot, which takes its time going nowhere at all, and is peppered with holes. Some of these are explained by the aforementioned final plot twist (which serves to explain away a lot of sloppy storytelling), but others are left wide open. For example, in Nick's recurring visions of his mother, she is always young and voluptuous. Does he not remember the past twenty years of her life, even though they obviously lived in the same town? I'm also a little fuzzy on why his accent is British, but hers is American.
The dialogue isn't so good either. Here's an example: Nick has convinced Helena to go home with him to get her address book, which was somehow missing from her purse. As they pull into the driveway, he says, "Here we are at the house, Helena. I'm so glad I got to tell you that story in such depth and detail." I'll leave it at that.
The actors don't help matters, either. Nick is played by Julian Sands (Arachnophobia, The Loss of Sexual Innocence), whose decision to star in this film is unfortunately consistent with the quality of his earlier role choices. Sands is probably doing just exactly what Lynch directed him to do, but that doesn't mean he's not annoying. "Do you think she ever thinks about me?" he quavers to his friend Lawrence early in the movie, oozing with childish insecurity; from there he only gets worse. He sulks, he whines, he gloats, he fidgets…and for some unexplained reason, he has cotton in his ears for about half the movie.
The controversial role of Helena was finally filled by Sherilyn Fenn, of "Twin Peaks" fame. Fenn fits the role of Helena insofar as she projects complete unlikeableness. Her role involves a lot of spite and histrionics, as well as a couple of seductive scenes. I really doubt that any actor could be taken seriously in the role of a person with no limbs, but Fenn does nothing at all to counteract this opinion.
Bill Paxton (Twister, Vertical Limit), as Helena's boyfriend Ray, gets to strut his stuff in a couple of painfully bad argument scenes. I'm not sure which is worse: his hair or his delivery. Of the other minor characters, the less said the better, though I will mention that two small roles are played by Kurtwood Smith ("That '70s Show") and, no kidding, Art Garfunkel.
The soundtrack is a not-so-subtle blend of pop and classical, punctuated liberally by what I refer to as the Danger Drone: an ominous hum signaling that Something Bad Is Going To Happen. I couldn't see any rhyme or reason to the song selection until I looked at the titles: "Woman in Chains" (Tears for Fears), "Sadeness" (Enigma), "I Can't Make You Love Me" (Venice), and so on. Note to self: if ever put in charge of selecting songs for a soundtrack, don't pick them just for the titles.
At this point, you may be wondering if Boxing Helena is bad enough to be worth watching just for laughs. There are many films that are bad in a good way. I can assure you that this is not one of them. Sure, I laughed a couple of times while watching it (mostly at the scene where Helena gets run down by the truck), but the few moments of unintentional humor weren't worth the 106 minutes of torture. (And yes, those 106 minutes do include the erotic footage trimmed to give the film an R rating in the theatrical release, and no, the restored bits don't improve it at all.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it's not enough to save the film, the cinematography, by Frank Byers of "Twin Peaks," is really rather good.
For what it's worth, MGM has given Boxing Helena a much better transfer than it deserves. It's anamorphic; black levels and colors are excellent, with next to no artifacting or dirt flecks. Though stereo, the soundtrack is quite clear and clean.
The laserdisc of this film contained quite a few extras, but the only special feature on the DVD is the original theatrical trailer. If you ask me, that's an improvement.
It is not uncommon for viewers to compare bad films to waste matter, as in "a piece of crap" or "a huge, steaming pile of poo." However, in this case such a comparison would be somewhat unfair, considering that excrement, though unpleasant, is a necessary, healthy, normal part of the human experience. None of the above can be said for Boxing Helena. This is one movement no one should have to sit through.
If I haven't convinced you to stay as far away from this movie as possible, let me refer you to Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension, linked at right, which will tell you the story in great depth and detail (and with screen shots and amusing sarcastic commentary). Save yourself a rental fee and read the synopsis instead; it's much less painful. If you still want to see the movie afterward, there's nothing I can do for you.
Boxing Helena is hereby pronounced guilty of abysmal putridity and sentenced to be drawn, quartered, suffocated, electrocuted, poisoned, run over by a big red truck, and hung by the neck until dead. As for those responsible for this travesty, their creative licenses are to be revoked for a period of not less than fifty years.
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Scales of Justice
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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