Masters of Horror: Dario Argento

Starring: Steven Weber, Carrie Fleming, Meat Loaf, Ellen Ewusie Directed by: Dario Argento

Never being a fellow who has coughed up the extra money for “premium” cable channels…like your HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, etc….I missed the original run of Masters of Horror when it aired in 2005 on Showtime.  Having run across them recently on Netflix during the Halloween season, I figured I would give them a crack.

The list of directors reads like a who’s who of horror movie directors.  Joe Dante, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Don Coscarelli… Coscarelli …you know, the Phantasm guy.  Well, everybody can’t be Sam Raimi.

For reasons unbeknownst even to me, I decided to watch the two Dario Argento entries.  I’ve never been a big fan of Italian horror cinema.  To the best of my recollection I have seen exactly two Italian horror films, Lucio Fulci’s The Gates of Hell and Argento’s Suspiria, widely accepted as the bee’s knees of Italian horror.  I was nonplussed by both.  And while some have tried to convince me these are not necessarily the best films in either director’s oeuvre, I have taken a firm “fool me once” stance.  Maybe this is why I chose Argento; a chance at redemption for another whole horror niche.

First up, Jenifer.

The set-up to the film is sketchy at best.  Detective Frank Spivey (Steven Weber) is having lunch with his partner in what appears to be the middle of nowhere when he decides to get out of the car.  There is no reason given for this action.  He spots a man dragging a woman down to a lake, and springs in to action.  The man is wielding a blade, and Spivey commands him to stop.  He simply utters, “Go away, you don’t know what she is,” and proceeds to lower the blade, at which time Spivey shoot him dead.  Spivey approaches the woman only to find she is unable to talk and disfigured beyond belief.

After giving a report to his boss, Spivey discovers the girl, Jenifer (Carrie Fleming), has been taken to an insane asylum.  Feeling sorry for her, he invites her to stay with him and his family until they can find someplace for her to stay.  Believe it or not, Spivey’s wife ain’t having anything of the sort and, with son in tow, leaves him with Jenifer……..after they stumble upon her eviscerating and eating the pet cat.

While they avoid showing Jenifer’s face full-on too much, the make-up is solid, so when she is viewed her disfigurement is uncomfortable.  She has no iris, only giant black pupils.  Her mouth always hangs open, causing a fresh layer of drool constantly dripping from her chin.

If you’re a horror movie fan, Jenifer seems very familiar.  Nobody’s breaking new ground here.  After seeing the opening scene you can probably guess what will occur in the end, but it is comfortably directed and acted, and there are some disturbing scenes, in particular as Jenifer becomes a seductress.  The 60-minute run time feels perfect, any more and you would stretch an already thin plot to transparency.

Secondly, I watched Pelts.

Jake Feldman (Meat Loaf….yes, Meat Loaf) is a fur trader with questionable ethics - of course they are, he’s a fur trader! He frequents a sleazy strip club where he requests lap dances from his favorite adult entertainer, Shanna (Ellen Ewusie).  After unsuccessfully trying to force himself on her, he promises, “One day you’ll give it to me.”  Who can resist that sort of wily charm?!

His plan for wooing her is to create the purrfect….ahem.…perfect fur coat for her.  He receives a call from fur trapper Jeb Jameson (John Saxon) promising the finest raccoon furs money can buy.  Luckily for Feldman, Jameson’s son Larry (Michal Suchánek), takes a baseball bat to his pa’s head, so the relevance of monetary compensation becomes moot.  Why does Larry bash in his dad’s head?  The raccoons told him to do it.  The raccoon furs, that is.

As opposed to Jenifer, where the entire scenario seems overly familiar, the plot here is pretty original.  However, the execution is lacking.  Meat Loaf is either completely miscast, or just a poor actor in general.  They grease back his hair and have him wear cheap suits and a trench coat, but his idea of sleazy is either growling or yelling his lines unconvincingly.  The only other character given legitimate screen time is Shanna, and I believe it is safe to say Ellen Ewusie was cast for reasons other than her acting chops.

I can’t decide if a film based around mystical raccoons dubbed “Pine Lights” for no apparent reason is genius, or comedy gold.  Either way, the script doesn’t deliver.  When the film isn’t being ridiculously gory -- and, if nothing else, it is certainly unnecessarily gory -- it is unbearably boring.

In the end both films have fistfuls of what you would expect in cheesy horror: nudity, gore, and plotlines where characters use no common sense.  I’ve seen these aspects in plenty of films.  What I didn’t get is any real sense of style from Argento.  Both episodes played out exactly like TV episodes.  I dare say I’ve seen more style in episodes of CSI or, perhaps more fittingly, the X-Files.

“Fool me twice…”

Written by Ryan Venson