Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jenifer (2005) / Pelts (2006) dir. Dario Argento

Jenifer (2005)

Logline: Frank Spivey (Steven Weber), a police officer, saves a horrifically disfigured young woman, Jenifer (Carrie Fleming), from being murdered by a meat cleaver-wielding madman. Discovering that she has nowhere else to go and finding himself inexplicably drawn to her, Spivey invites Jenifer to stay in his home, despite his family's reservations. When Jenifer begins to reveal her true sinister nature, Spivey's life spirals out of control as he attempts-- against all rational judgement-- to protect her.

From 2005 to 2006, Argento kept himself busy with TV work. His muddled, visually nondescript Italian made-for-TV feature, Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005), proved through its amateurish slog of far-from-clever intertextual references and scenes of near anti-suspense that one can revere Hitchcock without necessarily emulating him. Lacking even the absurdity of an earlier turd like The Card Player (2004), Do You Like Hitchcock? is perhaps the worst film Argento has yet made, and-- at the time-- it seemed to signal a concerning descent into TV-budget schlock. The film hinted that Argento was content to slum it on the small screen (which he hadn't done since early in his career, with 1973's Door into Darkness), where he could ineptly and lazily fumble around in the general wheelhouse of his past glories without necessarily having to please producers fretting about potential box office returns and international sales. Rather than exploiting these relative freedoms and becoming a vessel for experimentation, Do You Like Hitchcock? smells of nothing more than a quick paycheck rooted in the name recognition he'd built from the product of better days. For the handful of months between July and November of 2005, things were looking grimmer-than-usual in the career of one of Italian horror's perennials. 

For Argento to follow-up this ill-conceived TV venture shortly thereafter with yet two more TV ventures only served to make the state of his career appear increasingly desperate, at least initially. Fortunately, the two short films that Argento contributed to Mick Garris's Masters of Horror anthology program for the Showtime network, "Jenifer" and "Pelts," aren't quite the harbingers of obsolescence that Do You Like Hitchcock? was. What they are is decidedly mixed bags of (somewhat shockingly) new tricks. Neither film is quite like anything Argento has produced in the past, perhaps due to the fact that they are the first time that he's shied away from working on the screenplay of one of his films. Both shorts are about supernatural subjects, but they possess little of the breezy surreal fantasy of an Inferno (1980) or a Phenomena (1985). Rather, they're gory, morbidly humorous morality fables in the tradition of 1950s horror comic books. (Not coincidentally, "Jenifer" was adapted by star Steven Weber from a short in a 1974 issue of the horror anthology comic Creepy, a long-running EC knockoff.) Moreover, their major point of departure from the dulling visual blandness of Do You Like Hitchcock? is that both "Jenifer" and "Pelts" look good. Though they carry that unmistakable made-for-TV glow, it's apparent that these weren't sloppy or careless productions. The cast and crew behind Argento turn in fine work on both shorts, resulting in the most competently put together Argento films since Sleepless (2001).

But there is a problem with these Masters of Horror episodes, beyond their moral simplicity: they are above all else achingly misogynistic pieces that construct their female characters as nothing more than demonic sirens leading hapless men to beastly ends. These females' only currency-- both as characters and as narrative devices-- is sex, and they trade in it for their own selfish gain at the expense of the men, who are drawn about helplessly by their groins. What's worse is that the "moral message" of each film is tied into the dangerous temptation that these women pose, urging men to avoid contact with them or else prepare to face the bloody consequences. This is a crude old sexist moral gong to bang (and I mean really old, like Proverbs old), and it results in the films being about as subtle as a witch burning. True, Argento didn't write either of these tales, but he did film them. His culpability can't be totally brushed aside.

The first tale, "Jenifer," is the most egregious offender on this count. Steven Weber's family man police officer, Frank Spivey, is seduced away from said family and into covering up heinous acts by the vile Jenifer, resulting in his own downfall. Jenifer is an interesting character, if only for how far she's been reduced into a gendered narrative device. She's a mute demonic entity of unclear origins (perhaps, in the film's logic, being a woman is demonic enough) and her dual nature-- as seductress and devourer-- is inscribed physically, as physicality is all that she's been provided:  her face is horrifically disfigured-- equipped with a monstrous, snarling mouth-- but she sure does have a rockin' bod otherwise. She is the promise of sex and the hardly concealed "dangers" of sex made flesh. Throughout the film, Jenifer feigns supplication and gratitude (usually of a sexual nature) to Spivey for his efforts in saving and protecting her. In truth, she's using him to cover up her mess, as she tends to destroy (and eat) all that she encounters. The mallet-to-the-head subtlety of the circular ending reveals that Jenifer has been cycling through men for some time now, using them up until they've cracked before replacing them with new saps. The darkly comedic tone of "Jenifer" doesn't earn it a pass for its repugnant formulation of women and male-female relationships, and Argento proves his old detractors right through his association with it.

Pelts (2006)

Logline: Magic raccoons with beautiful pelts are trapped and killed by John Saxon who then sells them to Meat Loaf who himself hopes to make these beautiful, magical pelts into a fur coat for a lesbian stripper who will then (being grateful) allow him to have sex with her. Unfortunately for these folks and their selfish desires, dreadful events befall anyone who chances into contact with these magical pelts.

"Pelts," Argento's second season contribution to Masters of Horror, is only slightly less misogynistic than its predecessor, partly because it has another moral message to jackhammer home: killing animals for their pelts is wrong. Yes, that is exactly as complex as this one's political message aims for. It accomplishes this lofty message by giving just desserts to those folks involved in every step of the fur trade, magically forcing them to commit on themselves the same atrocities they commit on helpless animals for a living. This scenario leads to some rather gory fun, but you'd refrain from calling it an intelligent critique of a bloody business enterprise. Adapted from a story by writer F. Paul Wilson, "Pelts" was apparently "tarted up" by Argento and screenwriter Matt Venne in its journey to the small screen. Because its misogynistic content crops up in that added sex and strip club sequences, we can probably blame its sexist attitude on them rather than Wilson. See, lustful fur trader Jake Feldman (Meat Loaf) will do anything to have sex with sultry stripper Shanna (Ellen Ewusie), regardless of the fact that she's gay. When he encounters the magical raccoon pelts in question, his first thought is to make them into a stunning coat that Shanna can model in exchange for the opportunity to get it on with her. When presented with the fur coat and Feldman's offer, Shanna agrees. (This is, according to what Wilson writes in his above linked post, in direct contrast to the outcome of his story.) Shanna betrays her own sexuality and lowers herself to have sex with Feldman, whom she quite dislikes, for the mere privilege of wearing a more-or-less useless material good. Women, of course, are always seduced by signs of wealth and will do anything to achieve them. Didn't you know this? Similarly to Frank Spivey in "Jenifer," Feldman is presented as a victim of his uncontrollable desires (though a far less sympathetic one, in consequence of the "fur trapping is evil" angle). This whole business with the furs might not have happened if Feldman didn't need to impress Shanna in order to convince her to sleep with him, and his total effort to give her everything she wants from him is rendered, graphically, at the conclusion of the film as him literally giving her the skin off his back (his skin, in this instance, standing in for his shirt). Gee, what a noble, selfless guy.

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