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Sunday, August 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Showtime Film Gives New Meaning To `Snow White'

Tribune Media Services

Before Disney turned them into sweet, cute family films, the folk tales gathered from peasants by brothers Jacob Ludwig Carl and Wilhelm Carl Grimm in "Children's and Household Tales" (1812), better known as "Grimm's Fairy-Tales" were horrific stories of murder, demons, cannibalism and evil.

One of the most famous concerns a stepmother who plots to kill her beautiful stepdaughter, of whom she is insanely jealous, have the child's heart cut out and served to her unwitting father at dinner.

Sounds a lot more like Wes Craven than Walt Disney, doesn't it?

At 9 p.m. Sunday, Showtime presents a new version of the "Snow White" legend, called "Snow White: A Tale of Terror." Based on an older, darker take on the story, it stars Sigourney Weaver as the stepmother, Claudia; Sam Neill as the father, Frederick Hoffman; Taryn Davis as the Snow White character, called Lilli, as a child; and Monica Keena as the teenage Lilli. David Conrad ("Relativity") stars as Dr. Gutenberg, Lilli's suitor.

Filmed in the Czech Republic, the story is set in Austria's Black Forest during the late 15th century (an earlier version of the script, several years in development, had it set in New York, with gang members as the dwarves). Frederick and his first wife, Liliana (Joanna Roth) are traveling through the snowy forest when their carriage overturns. Although it will cost her life, the gravely injured Liliana pleads with her husband to save her unborn child, whom he names Lilli.

Doted on by her father and a devoted nanny (Frances Cuka), 7-year-old Lilli is appalled when her father brings home a new bride, beautiful noblewoman Claudia Alvise. Although Claudia brings a puppy and tries to win over her new stepdaughter, Lilli refuses to accept her.

"I was very touched by Claudia," says Weaver. "The director, Michael Cohn, saw it very much as a story about this woman, and I felt this, too, that when she arrived at the castle to marry Frederick, that she loved him, wanted everything to go well, felt confident she could win over the little girl, who really doesn't give her a chance. It just seemed like a very modern story to me.

"There's this constant conflict between the stepdaughter and the stepmother, and I think the father blames it on the stepmother. And so when she loses her own child, she becomes increasingly unstable. But I certainly didn't want to play her as bad throughout. It seemed to me far more interesting to show someone who had the best intentions, but things don't work out for her. She begins to turn more and more to witchcraft to get what she needs, because she feels Snow White has ruined her life."

Things come to a head when, as Weaver pointed out, Claudia has a miscarriage and blames it on Lilli. She sends the now-teenage girl into the forest to be murdered by Claudia's mute brother, Gustav (Miroslav Taborsky). But Gustav fails, and Lilli escapes into the forest.

What she finds there couldn't be further from Disney's friendly little seven dwarves. Lilli finds a band of desperate outcasts, living in a ruined abbey and scratching out an existence in an abandoned mine. With a cross branded into his face, its leader, Will (Gil Bellows), becomes Lilli's protector, antagonist and eventual love interest.

Meanwhile, Claudia becomes obsessed with the antique vanity and mirror that belonged to her mother. "The mirror was her mother's, so it's also her mother speaking to her," says Weaver. "She's a very lonely woman at this point.

Egged on by the mirror image, Claudia begins a long descent into evil and madness. "To me," says Weaver, "it all hinges on Frederick. They both wanted Frederick, to be first in his heart. And when she saw that she couldn't be because she'd lost the heir, the son, she just crumbled. It meant everything to her to have his love."

Upon learning through magic that Lilli lives, Claudia transforms herself into a crone and heads into the forest with the famous poison apple. "It's certainly not the obvious hag, it's a very bizarre and grotesque woman. I loved it. They wanted me to wear contacts, and I said, `No, I'd really like to see my own eyes on that face.' I loved the character so much. I used to throw my arms around Sam Neill, saying, `Oh, I love you darling. You make me feel 65 again.' I had a blast. She was very bawdy."

But Weaver didn't want to have Lilli just trustingly accept the apple, as in other versions of the tale. "I thought she should be much more wily and seductive than, knock, knock, knock, `Here dearie, want an apple?' It makes Snow White much more human. She's not so stupid that she takes some piece of fruit from some strange woman."

For Weaver, the mother of a 7-year-old daughter, doing the miscarriage scene was particularly difficult. "It was very painful. But I like the scene very much because of what happened. What I discovered doing it is that the loss of the child is so huge, when she looks in the mirror, she sees, from her point of view, a woman who's failed, who can't attract Frederick anymore. Frederick doesn't come in to her, so she feels so forsaken.

"She looks in the mirror, and it's not that she looks that much worse - although she looks pretty bad - but it's that she is no longer who she thought she was, and that's her lowest moment. It's just the end of her.

"Losing a child man make you lose your mind. So I guess, to me, that was the appeal, showing this story as a psychological thriller instead of just showing it as this fairy tale." What does she hope viewers take away from "Snow White: A Tale of Terror"?

"I hope it will take people to a different time and place, and gives them a story that's meaningful to them, that they can relate to, that actually goes into these very dark areas, with suspense and terror."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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