Monday, January 25, 2016

Pelts (2006)

Looking back on Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology series, the show was really the first of its kind. While the concept of genre anthology television shows had been around since the 50’s, Masters of Horror was the first horror anthology show where almost every episode was directed by, as the title of the show implied, a veteran of the horror genre. The series first season reads like a who’s who of well-respected genre stalwarts like John Carpenter, Dario Argneto, Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, John Landis, Stuart Gordon, Larry Cohen and Takashi Miike (despite his episode Imprint (2006) , which was intended to be the season one finale being banned from broadcast in America) amongst others. While some of the episodes had a tendency to be hit or miss, the good ones were really good, some even great and along with Gordon’s Dreams in the Witch House (2005) and Miike’s Imprint, Argento’s Jenifer (2005) was undoubtedly one of the best, not to mention unusual episodes of the first season and an interesting stylistic detour for Argento. Several of the directors from the first season returned for the second including Carpenter, Hooper, Landis, Dante and Gordon. Argento too retuned to helm a second episode and just like Jenifer, the resulting film, the equally strange and blood-soaked Pelts was easily the biggest highlight of the second season as well as a highlight in Argento’s more recent catalogue.

Fur trader Jake Feldman (Meat Loaf) has only one desire, Shanna, a stripper whom he’s long been obsessed with. While watching Shanna dance one night, Jake gets a call from Jeb Jameson (John Saxon), a local fur trapper who claims he’s in possession of raccoon pelts that will make Jake a rich man. The pelts are indeed special as Jake soon discovers when arriving at Jebs house but he also discovers the dead bodies of Jeb and his son, an omen which Jake chooses to ignore as the pelts are cursed causing anyone who comes into contact with them to lose their minds. Jake plans on making a coat out of the pelts and proposes to Shanna that she wear it in a fashion show hoping to finally get what he wants, albeit at the price of his own skin.

Whereas Jenifer, Argento’s previous entry in the Masters of Horror series, was somewhat atypical for Argento in terms of subject matter and direction, Pelts has Argento’s fingerprints all over it from its grotesque, almost fairytale-esque storyline to its stylish visual design. It becomes apparent early on that Pelts is going to be a bizarre little film with the main plot device being cursed raccoon pelts driving people to commit horrific acts, and indeed it is rather outlandish, even absurd in spots especially when it comes too the origin of the raccoons and the history of a mysterious “ancient city”, yet Argento plays the film mostly straight which was a wise move as the films tone fits with the side themes of greed and obsession. Being made for TV the film only runs a brief 59 minutes but gets a lot accomplished in that short time frame and despite the fact that a logic is given for all the bloodshed that happens as a result of the pelts, the actual reasoning is again so odd that no mystique is ever sacrificed. What also makes the film so transfixing is Argento’s matter of fact presentation of the violence which is elaborate as it is unflinching. Faces are ripped apart inside animal traps, eyes, nostrils and mouths are sewn shut and sharp objects are taken to flesh culminating in an astonishing gore set-piece involving the magnetic Meat Loaf, who’s excellent by the way, in the role of the love to hate Jake, and his own “pelts”.

Considering the themes of selfish people getting their comeuppance working in the fur industry, Pelts could be interpreted as an attack on the fur industry however Argento claims that his intentions while making the film weren’t motivated be morals or politics but rather the idea that, despite the bizarreness of the plot, the story was as Argento puts it, a “classic” horror tale. What was intentional was the slick lighting as Argento wanted the film to be a display of colors and there’s little to no question as to who is behind the camera here. While obviously done on a much smaller scale than say Suspiria (1977) or Inferno (1980), Argento’s mastery of the color palate is ever present. Pelts also marked the first time John Saxon appeared in an Argento film since Tenebre (1982) and although his role is small Saxon is always a welcome addition to any film. Pelts was Argento’s last bit of TV work before returning to the big screen with the often misunderstood Mother of Tears (2007) and his two stints on Masters of Horror certainly do make for interesting additions to his filmography. Pelts is over the top, gruesome and at times sexy, but most importantly its an original piece of horror that showcases Argento’s knack for outlandish material and should serve as a breath of fresh air for those fed up with current bland genre offerings.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Jenifer (2005)

It seems that all the great Italian genre filmmakers eventually turn to television at some point. The last film Mario Bava worked on was a TV project entitled The Venus of Ille (1979), a tag-team effort between Bava and son Lamberto who of course also found himself at the helm of many a TV movie in the 80’s. Ruggero Deodato began his career making commercials and continued to do so throughout his filmmaking career. In 1989 Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi teamed up for the House of Doom series with Fulci directing two made for TV films for the series, The Sweet House of Horrors and The House of Clocks, and Lenzi directing the other two, The House of Lost Souls and The House of Witchcraft. For the most part Sergio Martino has worked almost exclusively in television since the early 90’s, even directing the giallo mini-series Private Crimes (1993). Perhaps due to his legacy (and no doubt box office dependability in Italy), Dario Argento has managed to remain active in theatrical features although in 2005 he too took the TV route. That year not only saw Argento direct the TV movie homage to Hitchcock appropriately entitled Do You Like Hitchcock? but also Argento’s entry in the first season of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series Jenifer, one of the highlights of the first season and one of Argento’s most atypical and perverse films.

While witnessing a deranged man attempting to butcher a defenseless woman (Carrie Anne Fleming), detective Frank Spivey (Steven Weber) has no choice but to shoot the man dead. He discovers the woman’s face to be horribly disfigured and that almost nothing is known about her other than her name being Jenifer. Soon Frank is unable to get Jenifer out of his thoughts and feeling guilty about her having no place to go, Frank takes Jenifer home with him, much to the horror of his wife and son who quickly leave after discovering Jenifer’s barbaric side. Frank soon discovers another side of Jenifer, that she is a nymphomaniac with an insatiable sexual desire that he is unable to deny. Completely under Jenifer’s spell, Frank retreats to a cabin in the woods with Jenifer in a new town, a decision that can only end in disaster.

Going back and forth between being disgusting, erotic and hilarious and at times all three at once, Jenifer, both the film and the titular character are definitely oddities. Running at a rather brief 58 minutes, the film wastes little to no time getting down to business in terms of Jenifer showing her true nature and Frank’s downfall that that goes along with it. For some this might seem like jumping the gun a bit in terms of character development but it really gives the character of Jenifer an even greater mystique and makes Frank’s descent from family man and police officer to delirious drifter all the more haunting. Argento is certainly fascinated with the idea of a man willing to have sex with a women with a perfect body (which Jenifer has) in spite of her hideously mangled face and the sex scenes do provide some squirm inducing moments but they also serve as examples of the films deranged sense of humor. Visually the film is Argento at his most straightforward as the story really didn’t call for any directorial flamboyance however when the time comes to show just how much damage Jenifer can do with her teeth, Argento doesn’t hold back on the violence one bit and the effects are outstanding, the main highlight obviously being Jenifer’s face which is legitimately frightening. Under all the make-up Carrie Anne Fleming does a fantastic job with nothing but body language and manages to convey a sense of sadness about Jenifer while still being terrifying.

Normally when most fans think of the Masters of Horror series and censorship the banning of Takashi Miike’s Imprint (2006) comes to mind, however Jenifer is notable for being the first episode of the Masters of Horror series to require cuts prior to broadcast. There were two brief instances of Jenifer performing oral sex that just didn’t fly with the network, however they do make an appearance during a making-of documentary on the DVD. What’s also revealed on the DVD is just how far Argento originally wanted to go with the sexual content, even requesting that the make-up crew create an “alien vagina”, as Argento described it, for Jenifer out of a smorgasbord of parts although that never ended up being put to use. What’s also interesting that that lead actor Steven Weber also wrote the screenplay which was adapted from a 10 page comic originally published in 1974 in the 63rd issue Creepy. As far Masters of Horror goes, Jenifer is one of the best the series had to offer but it also works great as a stand alone film, albeit a short one. Its an original mix of horror, sex and just the right amount of humor and a fairly unique direction taken by Argento who would return to direct a second episode of the series the following season, the equally bizarre Pelts (2006). One of his finest, more contemporary efforts.