Cinema Fearité Presents the Subtly Shocking Boxing Helena
Cinema Fearité continues the celebration of Women in Horror Month with Jennifer Lynch's Boxing Helena.
If you’ve been following along at home, you know that February is Women in Horror Month, and Cinema Fearité has been celebrating female filmmakers all month long. So far, we’ve been pretty schlocky, with Katt Shea’s erotic thriller Stripped to Kill and Carol Frank’s college slasher Sorority House Massacre. This week, we’re gonna get a little weird with Jennifer Lynch’s artsy 1993 film Boxing Helena.
Boxing Helena is about a surgeon named Dr. Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands from Gothic) who has an unhealthy obsession with a woman named Helena (Sherilyn Fenn from “Twin Peaks”) with whom he had a brief affair. After stalking and spying on Helena, Nick lures her back to his home where she is the victim of an unexpected hit-and-run accident. Since everything happened right in front of his house, Nick brings Helena inside and operates, amputating both of her legs to save her life. He keeps her imprisoned there against her will, but the anything-but-helpless woman strikes out and tries to strangle her captor as soon as he lets down his guard. This results in Nick amputating both of her arms as well. Now that she is completely dependent upon him, Nick believes that Helena is his, but the game of cat-and-mouse has only just begun.
If the name Jennifer Lynch sounds familiar, it should; she is the daughter of auteur filmmaker David Lynch of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man fame. Although Jennifer did work on some of her father’s movies, she cut her teeth in Hollywood writing for the “Friday the 13th” television series. Boxing Helena is her first feature film, mixing the strikingly beautiful imagery of her father’s work with an eerie Misery-esque stalker imprisonment motif. The resulting film is both lovely to look at and subtly horrifying to experience.
Although she is clearly the victim in the movie, Sherilyn Fenn’s Helena is not exactly a sympathetic character. There are no heroes in Boxing Helena, only different shades of villain. Sure, Nick is the obvious antagonist; even before he abducts Helena and turns her into his own private Venus de Milo, he’s shown doing things like climbing trees and peeping in her windows. Oh, and did we mention that he even has a girlfriend (played by Dead Girl’s Betsy Clark)? At a party early in the film, he spends all night snooping in on Helena, ignoring the gal who actually likes him.
But Helena is not much better. She’s a complete vixen, even going so far as to leave the aforementioned party with a friend of Nick’s, making sure to rub the doctor’s nose in it on the way out. Even once she’s dismembered, she’s verbally abusive to Nick, refusing to play the victim no matter how much control over her he has. As her character works her way through her arc, her strength is undermined somewhat by what seems like a sneaky case of Stockholm Syndrome, but overall, Helena starts out a shrew, and she ends up a shrew.
In addition to Julian Sands and Sherilyn Fenn, there are several other familiar faces that appear in Boxing Helena. The most recognizable is that of the late Bill Paxton (Frailty, Near Dark), who shows up as Helena’s not-so-knight-in-shining-armor boyfriend, Ray. Also along for the ride is Art Garfunkel (yes, THAT Art Garfunkel, who, in addition to being the “other” half of the famous pop-folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, also did some acting in movies like Catch-22 and Bad Timing), who pops in as Dr. Laurence Augustine, one of Nick’s medical colleagues. Kurtwood Smith (better known as Red Forman on “That ‘70s Show”) also graces the screen as Dr. Alan Harrison, another one of Nick’s fellow doctors. The cast in Boxing Helena is fairly small and tight, but the camera seemingly can’t look anywhere without seeing some semi-famous actor.
On a technical storytelling level, Boxing Helena utilizes a quick match cut editing style to reveal a lot about Nick’s character. Editor David Finfer, who cut everything from The Fugitive to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, splices scenes from Nick’s past together with events from the present and visions from his own imagination to give the audience a few clues as to why he’s as unstable as he is. His motivations are a bit contrived and predictable, but Lynch and Finfer do a good enough job at presenting them that the viewer still winds up intrigued. Boxing Helena is put together remarkably well, and that helps with the overall effectiveness of the movie. It’s not just a torture-porn flick about a sick guy who cuts off a girl’s arms and legs. It’s an artistic expression…of a guy who cuts off a girl’s arms and legs.
The soundtrack for Boxing Helena is split evenly between nineties pop music and classical standards. Songs by artists like Tears for Fears, Lenny Kravitz, and Enigma are balanced out by Mozart piano pieces, Bach sting concertos, and Puccini operas. The carefully selected dichotomy between old and new gives Boxing Helena a classically modern vibe. There’s also a Cab Calloway song tossed in for good measure, and a competent (if a bit forgettable) cinematic score from Graeme Revell (Dead Calm, Freddy vs. Jason) ties it all together. The music in Boxing Helena doesn’t exactly propel the story forward, but it doesn’t need to. It does what it’s supposed to do – it defines the era of the movie as well as the mindset of its characters.
Boxing Helena billed itself as “the most talked about movie of the year,” and for the most part, it lived up to that reputation, even if the critical and commercial opinions were mixed. In the years since, Jennifer Lynch has carved out a nice filmmaking career for herself, mostly directing episodes of television shows like “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story,” and “Teen Wolf.” But for many movie fans, this one included, she will always be remembered for her subtly shocking debut feature, Boxing Helena.