While we were discussing September’s Movie of the Month, the Steve Guttenberg/Jami Gertz will-they-won’t-they comedy from Hell The Boyfriend School, we had a hard time pinning down the film’s exact genre. Ostensibly a traditional rom-com, the film had some painfully awkward stretches of cringe comedy that clouded the issue. Even stranger yet, the romance novelist character played by Shelley Long was a terrifying, overbearing presence that overstepped her bounds as a quirky sister/side-character & ventured into some truly horrific torture-tactics territory. Her meddling was at least somewhat well-intentioned; she wanted to help her brother, played by Guttenberg, recover from a near-fatal battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma (told you it gets rough) by reshaping him into an alpha male biker trope straight out of one of her romance novels. The problem is that the transformation is emotionally painful for The Gutte & it leads to a really nasty line of deception that he finds difficult to escape once the ball gets rolling. Shelley Long’s romance novelist is the source of all the film’s non-Hodgkin’s related conflict & creates an amped up level of dread that’s not typically present in a traditional, lighthearted rom-com, making for one very strange little movie.
While The Boyfriend School isn’t exceptionally unique in its genre play that takes dimestore romance novel tropes into unexpected territory, it is at the very least part of a small crowd. Perhaps the most well-known romance novel-themed comedies are the Robert Zemeckis films Romancing the Stone & its little-loved sequel Jewel of the Nile, but those are more oriented towards action comedy (as is typical with Zemeckis) than the unusual discomfort & horror of The Boyfriend School. I could only find one picture that explores unexpected horror in a romance novel-themed romcom similar to the dread Shelley Long’s meddling creates in The Boyfriend School. 1989’s She-Devil, an underloved gem starring Meryl Streep, Roseanne Barr, and Ed Begley Jr., injects a surreal sense of horror into the romcom format, at the same time making sure to lampoon the very idea of romance novels, as well as the illusion & cruelty of unfair beauty standards and the competitive wedges that are driven between women who would benefit much more from a sense of camaraderie. She-Devil may, in fact, be a far supreior film than The Boyfriend School, because its writing is so pointed & satirical that its horror can only be read as intentional, whereas the terror of The Boyfriend School sometimes seems to exist outside what the film’s creators intended. I assume that we were supposed to leave The Boyfriend School feeling great that The Gutte got the girl, but I was honestly more in a state of shock & disbelief than anything, whereas in She-Devil the horror element is promised right there in the title.
She-Devil stars Roseanne Barr in the titular role as a frumpy housewife who goes on a violent quest for revenge when her husband leaves her for a wealthy romance novelist played by Meryl Streep. Streep reveals herself to be hilariously adept at playing the butt of the joke here & the movie has a field day poking fun at her in a much more obvious way than The Boyfriend School attacks Shelley Long’s very similar antagonist. First introduced as “The Reigning Royal Highness of Romance” by none other than Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous‘ Robin Leach (who also provides voice over work for the film’s trailer), Streep’s bodice-ripping novelist Mary Fisher is a genteel bore with more than thirty novels to her name, a boy toy butler who does more boytoying than butling, and a vast fortune she vainly tries to enjoy despite her crippling loneliness. In a very early plot development, she seduces the husband of Roseanne’s housewife frump (played by Ed Begley, Jr.) under the guise of hiring him as her accountant. Begley’s accountant is hilariously dedicated to seeing the world in terms of his profession, constantly making offhand remarks about electric bills, tax writeoffs, and balanced checkbooks whenever a vague opportunity arises. When he finally breaks things off with his wife (who was knowingly, but patiently suffering through his adultery) he describes himself as having four assets in life (his home, his family, his career, and his freedom) & exactly one liability: her. That alone would be cruel enough, but he punctuates the conversation with this ugly diatribe: “You’re a bad mother, a lousy wife, and a terrible cook. In fact, have you looked in a mirror recently? I don’t even think you’re a woman. Do you know what you are? You’re a she-devil!”
Watching Roseanne’s much-humiliated wife suffer through this indignity is a horrifying moment, something the film is smart to immediately acknowledge. After her husband’s abusive tirade a visible change takes place in her. She turns to her make-up mirrors, which provide an amusing sort of fun house effect, and Mario Bava-esque horror movie lighting takes over the screen. She’s shown with glowing red eyes & accompanied by fire. Her transformation into the titular She-Devil is very much the kind of classic horror movie theatrics you’d expect to accompany the birth of the Frankenstein monster. This is also when the mood of the film shifts. No longer feeling loyal to a man that has taken her for granted, the She-Devil systematically destroys every one of her husband’s assets (his home, his family, his carreer, his freedom) until he’s broken down to a literal prisoner & not even Mary Fisher wants to pick at the crumbs. To her credit, the She-Devil does not attack Mary Fisher directly, although she does have wicked thoughts about her, like “I hope your pink palace crumbles into the sea. I hope your delicate white skin breaks out in hives and your shiny blond hair falls out at the root.” Instead, she attacks the verbally abusive, adulterous man that takes advantage of both Fisher & herself and even goes as far as to start an employment agency that gives all of the other disenfranchised, unglamorous, non-Mary Fishers of the world a chance to stand up for themselves in a society that’s systemically stacked against them.
Despite the horror movie lighting & the “She-Devil” moniker she’s awarded, Roseanne’s protagonist is actually pretty inspiring. Even though she’s presented in the context of becoming a monster, her transformation makes for a subtly feminist revenge-fantasy spin on the romcom genre that feels almost like a spiritual opposite of the deception & violation that’s played for uncomfortable laughs in The Boyfriend School. Unlike The Boyfriend School, She-Devil adopts a woman’s POV and has pointed things to say about sexual politics & the nature of romance novels as an art & a product (at one point calling them “nothing more than softcore porn for bored housewives”) that extend beyond the basic jab that they’re silly. When a woman complains in the film that, “Men get away with murder, you know. It seems like if you’re a woman, there’s just no justice in the world” the evil She-Devil of the title refuses to accept those terms & (gasp!) makes her own justice. The horror! Besides these thematic charms there’s also some great visual playfulness, like direct references to Psycho & What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a scene transition that cuts from a blowjob to a violent cucumber chopping, and a brief appearance from GLOW: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Both The Boyfriend School & She-Devil subvert the romance novel genre by portraying it as a horror show (it’s surprisingly rare that it’s portrayed in rom-coms at all), but The Boyfriend School‘s subversion feels cruel & unintentional while She-Devil‘s is much more winkingly transgressive. They make for an interesting double feature either way, one with much more terror & discomfort than you’d expect from a pair of late 80s rom-coms.
For more on September’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s The Boyfriend School, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.
3 thoughts on “Unexpected Horror in the Romance Novelist Rom-Coms She-Devil (1989) & The Boyfriend School (1990)”
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