“If you were a real woman, you’d lie to me about our sex.”
As it turns out, I’ve been wrong all these years about today’s Killtoberfest 3 movie and the final film in my “extreme” sounder, Boxing Helena. Apparently it’s pronounced “hell-AY-na”, not “Hel-enn-a”. It’s also pretty resoundingly terrible. You know how you hear about some movies for a long time and build them up in your head as something you just know is going to be awesome? And then it turns out that the fantasy doesn’t really exist and isn’t really what you wanted?
Nick Cavanaugh knows. Played by Julian Sands in his best approximation of what would happen if Julian Assange’s hair had a lovechild with a McDonaldland Fry Guy, Nick is dangerously obsessed with Helena (Sherilyn Fenn). Apparently she goes through men like the flu-ridden go through tissues; first she lures them with her beauty, then she has sex with them right up until she gets bored and drop-kicks them out of her life. Nick got drop-kicked a while ago but can’t seem to get over her, something all his friends at the hospital where he’s a skilled surgeon notice but don’t do anything about. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that it’s not the douchebags you have to keep an eye on, like Helena’s latest football:
They might do dumb douchebag things like hitting you or threatening your new boyfriend, but it’s the creepers, the guys like Nick who just can’t let go, who will kidnap you and start amputating limbs.
Not that he sets out to do this, necessarily. It just kind of happens–he manipulates Helena back to his house so he can have lunch with her, she leaves, there’s a car accident, and whoops, the next time she wakes up she’s lost a lot of weight all at once and Nick has that unique look on his face that says “I’m not saying I planned to be the only surgeon specializing in amputation when your legs got run over, but I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it.”
I don’t know what I was expecting from the rest of the movie movie–okay, that’s a lie, I was expecting Hannibal, I’m always expecting Hannibal–but it certainly wasn’t this. The surprising thing, I and Nick find, is that even after you’ve carved up a girl to the point where she’s helplessly dependent on you, that still doesn’t make her like you. What’s a guy gotta do to trigger some Stockholm Syndrome, anyway? Instead Helena continues to be, well, a bitch. That sounds odd to say, given that Nick has mutilated her and she has every right to be miffed, but honestly he’s such a wounded puppy dog (and clearly deranged, as opposed to sadistic) and she’s just a rude person. There’s this whole back and forth between them over the course of the film, where she mocks him as impotent and he cuts her to the form of his sexual/romantic fantasy and it still doesn’t help him or shut her up. Nick spends the whole movie dreaming about reducing her body to statuesque perfection, and once that’s accomplished he daydreams about her being whole again. Turns out he didn’t need her to be an object, he needed her to care. Whoops.
To Nick this process of “boxing”, this form he wants her in, is a fetish, and what is a fetish but a substitute for something missing which saves us from confronting the full impact of its absence? Nick’s problem is that he’s turned this idealized version of Helena into the substitute for… Helena. One gets the sense from Helena that this is really her problem with their whole “relationship,” and that she’d be perfectly fine becoming this for him if she felt he really, truly cared. The breakthrough between them expresses this problem via the sexual issue–she claims Nick is bad at sex (and we get a demonstration with another girl at one point), but then in a hallucinatory sequence Helena’s voice teaches him how to be a responsive and attentive lover while she watches him perform with a girl in the next room. Without contact between Nick and Helena, it’s as if they’re finally having sex anyway, and afterwards she looks at him in a new, respectful light. I’m not sure Nick changes at all, but she certainly does; now she believes him when he says he loves her. Maybe that’s supposed to make it tragic when everything comes to end?
What makes Boxing Helena a bad movie is more intention than execution, although the film is inexcusably cheesy for 1993. Like its characters, the movie isn’t really sure what it wants. There are moments of black comedy, like a slapstick scene of Nick restraining Helena when she tries to alert a visitor to her presence; moments of psychosexual intrigue, especially when it gets into Nick’s head and mother issues (the whole film takes place in his recently deceased mother’s house, and couldn’t be more Oedipal if the Bates Motel were next door); and moments that do try for horror (each new revelation of Helena’s changing body is a shock, and the movie knows it well). But none of these mix well with what appears to be an attempt at a sincere (if twisted) romance between two emotionally damaged people. It doesn’t help that the movie features essentially zero likable characters (not even Kurtwood Smith, Nick’s colleague who discovers Helena but agrees to say nothing in exchange for Nick recommending him for his job at the hospital–arguably he’s much more evil than Nick, because he suffers from no mental illness), so that you really don’t want to root for any of them. Or that the movie is gratingly unsubtle about its themes and self-analysis, like when it cuts between Helena and a caged bird. So clever.
I don’t even know if the terrible twist ending makes this film better or worse. (Boy, this just isn’t my month for bad endings, is it?) Let me do you a favor and spoil it right now, say it with me: it was all a dream. There are only two direct variations on the “it was all a dream” ending, and they are both equally terrible. The first is “OR WAS IT?!?!”, which is terrible. The second, more subtle version is the one Boxing Helena goes with–that although the entire kidnapping was a dream, it still affects Nick and Helena emotionally as if they’d both gone through it. Nick feels the guilt and arousal of his imagined crime, while Helena remembers him helping her into the ambulance after her (real) car accident, and begins to believe his affection for her. Both variations on the dream twist ending are bad, because they lack the courage of their convictions. If you wanted the story to mean something, it has to be real; if you want it to be fake, you have to allow that to negate some or all of what happened in the dream. Anything else is just cheating–eat your cake or have it. Both is untenable.
I’ve been willing in the past to look past a bad ending to salvage my enjoyment of a film, but with Boxing Helena there’s nothing to salvage. The characters are so cockeyed in their reactions (and so unlikable overall) that the performances suffer, the movie has very little tension because it doesn’t have a clear set of intentions regarding the plot or character goals, and the style is ridiculously melodramatic with very little basis to justify it. Nor is there much horror here–the movie chooses to skip over the actual surgeries, which is an odd and disappointing choice. (It’s also a shame the film didn’t come out a couple of years later; just one year after its 1993 release, Forest Gump would unveil the phenomenal use of digital effects to remove an actor’s limbs. Helena has to make do with magician’s tricks, and so can’t move her around very much.)
Boxing Helena ultimately and with great absurdity says that the psychosexual problems it details are fucked up and wrong and simultaneously that accepting them is the best way to heal and find love. Its idea of true romance is Armin Meiwes, and apparently even Meiwes doesn’t agree anymore. That should tell you something. I guess I’ll have to look elsewhere for the perfect “held captive and mutilated for sexual purposes” movie. Or just go watch Hannibal again. That works, too.
Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.