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Film Review: Boxing Helena (1993)

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“A top surgeon is besotted with a beautiful woman who once ditched him. Unable to come to terms with life without her, he tries to convince her that they need each other. She has other ideas, but an horrific accident leaves her at his mercy. The plot is bizarre and perhaps sick at times, ending abruptly and with a twist.” (courtesy IMDB)

It may start out looking like a remake of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1958), but Boxing Helena (1993) succeeds in pushing the boundaries between love and sadism and art and entertainment. Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands) is a brilliant surgeon who appears to have everything a man could desire. He’s rich, successful, obsessed with his mother and a rather poor dresser – check out his jogging suit! But beneath his seemingly perfect life is a secret burning desire. Nick is obsessed with Helena (Sherilyn Fenn), a young beautiful temptress with whom he once shared an unforgettable night with. Helena, on the other hand, despises Nick and shares her life with the leather-clad Ray (Bill Paxton).

When Helena is tricked into visiting Nick and gets run over by a Chevy Nova, Nick comes up with a brilliant plan to save her life and win her love – he cuts off her legs. Nick cares for Helena by drugging her and keeping her prisoner. Slowly but surely he tries to win her heart but Helena still resists his romantic advances, so Nick devises another brilliant plan – he cuts off her arms. Sound reasonable so far? I agree.

Helena is now faced with a choice. She really doesn’t have that many body parts left to sacrifice so, will she choose to stay with the insipid premature-ejaculating Nick, or wait to be saved by the mesh-shirted, horrifically-wigged Ray? Her choice might surprise you. The acting will probably devastate you. The ending may well bore you to tears.

The first feature to be directed by Jennifer Lynch, daughter of auteur David Lynch, Boxing Helena attracted many actresses including Madonna and Kim Basinger. In fact, Basinger was famously sued after walking away from the production and the controversy surrounding that case, as well as the feminist outcry over the film’s sadistic subject matter and accusations of nepotism, accompanied the movie’s critical drubbing upon its release in 1993. Lovely Sherilyn Fenn (of Twin Peaks fame) ultimately played the part of Helena. Ms. Lynch retreated from the public eye for many years but returned to the spotlight with the film Surveillance (2008) and her most recent effort, Hisss aka Nagin (2010).

Keep an eye out for restrained performances from actors extraordinaire Art Garfunkel and Kurtwood Smith, as well as the best impersonation of a puppet ever from Sherilyn Fenn. Julian Sands also makes a good puppet, despite having the use of all his limbs in this film – he’s just so wooden you’ll hope that someone has their hand up his backside.

With more career ups and downs than Michael Caine, Julian Sands began his film career appearing in supporting roles, including parts in Oxford Blues (1984) and The Killing Fields (1984). He was cast as the romantic lead in A Room With A View (1985), the success of which prompted Sands to move to Los Angeles and pursue an American film career. He has since appeared in a variety of both low-tier and high-budget films including the title role in Warlock (1989) and parts in films such as Arachnophobia (1990), Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and Mr. Cronenberg’s adaptation of the William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch (1991). He also played the voice of Valmont in the animated Jackie Chan Adventures, and appeared in the ninth season of Stargate SG-1 playing the Doci of the Ori. The last time I spotted Mr. Sands was in the television series 24 as a terrorist named Vladimir Bierko.

And then there’s the ever-dependable Bill Paxton. Like many actors, Bill Paxton started at the bottom and worked his way his way up – then back down, then round in circles with his underpants on his head. He started as a set dresser on films like Beach Blanket Bingo (1975), moved up to directing and producing the music video for Billy Mumy’s song Fish Heads (1980), then became The Terminator‘s first unfortunate encounter with Los Angeles nightlife in 1984, and played Anthony Michael Hall’s nemesis in Weird Science (1985) before directing something for real, the frightening family film Frailty (2001). With more than seventy films to his credit, I was duty-bound to discuss the one where he sports the worst haircut possible. Never have I laughed so hard at a wig in a film. Forget Tom Cruise in Born On The Fourth Of July (1989), forget Bruce Willis in Surrogates (2009), this is the wig to end all wigs – unless it really is his hair, in which case it’s even funnier.

In retrospect, Ms. Lynch really does challenge the audience with Boxing Helena, chock-a-block full of stunning visual metaphors (the Venus De Milo, a caged bird, etc.) this film truly tries to push the intellect of the viewer and poses burning questions: Is the film a dream? A fantasy? A complete waste of time? It’s not the kind of film I’d necessarily recommend to young teenage boys, for instance. Aside from the nudity, it teaches young men a rather negative message about obsession: If you’re in love with someone and they don’t love you back, don’t give up, don’t respect their wishes, simply take them captive, mutilate them and then they’ll love you! And it’s on that rather spooky thought I’ll invite you back for another brain-bursting B-grader next week as I again guide you through an atmosphere-filled excursion to the dark side of Hollywood for…Horror News! Toodles!

Boxing Helena (1993)

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