Masters of Horror: Pelts Review
For most followers of 70s Italian genre films, Dario Argento is held up as the great auteur of giallo cinema, a filmmaker whose take on that particularly Italian brand of murder-mystery spawned a litany of imitators and set the formula for the rest of the decade. From his accomplished directorial debut, the efficient and eye-opening thriller The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, to the Technicolor fantasy delights of Suspiria, to the cold and brutal character study of The Stendhal Syndrome, he made a name for himself as a director able to enliven well-worn genres with his own personal vision, giving us some of the greatest European horror films of the second half of the 20th century. For someone who once claimed that he had no interest in directing the work of other writers, and, after an unpleasant experience with the US-produced Trauma in the early 90s, that America could "screw itself", his acceptance in 2005 of an offer to direct an episode in the American Masters of Horror television series, from a pre-existing script adapted from a comic, no less, was met with no small degree of surprise.
The end result, Jenifer, sent academics and fans alike scurrying back to revise their auteurist theories. Bland and hopelessly workmanlike, Jenifer sharply divided his fanbase, with some claiming that it showed a newly re-energised Argento finally having fun with his work again, while others took it as yet further proof that the once-talented maestro had lost it completely. To date, I have been unable to bring myself to review Jenifer, a project so thoroughly anonymous and charmless that I find it difficult to watch from beginning to end, let alone write about. (There's something to be said for the old adage that "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all".) Before I move on, however, a few brief words summing up my feelings about it are probably in order.
Jenifer's problem, for me, was that it could have been directed by anyone - and by that I don't mean that it didn't "look like an Argento film" (whatever that is supposed to mean, given that Argento has embraced a variety of visual styles, from Disney-like Technicolor hues in Suspiria to the cold, modern, bleach-bypassed The Card Player), which is what the episode's defenders tend to assume its detractors mean when they criticise its bland appearance. Rather, it was the sort of anonymous point-and-shoot affair that any semi-competent director for hire could have pulled off. Essentially, had it not said "a film by Dario Argento" at the start, I sincerely doubt that it would have attracted so much notice, making the decision to fly Argento over from Italy to direct it a rather pointless endeavour. Jenifer was more a vehicle for its star/writer Steven Weber than for Argento, making the decision to market the episode around Argento's name rather than Weber's disingenuous at best, downright dishonest at worst. This, in fact, has been a continual problem with the Masters of Horror series: the concept is geared around the notion of big names in horror getting to put their own personal stamp on short television movies, when in fact the majority have simply been offered the choice of a number of pre-written scripts, and have been given little opportunity to make the material their own. There have been exceptions, admittedly, but by and large the project is the ultimate example of dishonest advertising.
As such, I was prepared for more of the same with Pelts, his contribution to the show's second season. My expectations were so low that I couldn't possibly have been disappointed, and, therefore, it's perhaps not entirely surprising that Pelts is better than I expected. Certainly, it's still clear that Argento is slumming it, calling "cut" and "action" and picking up a pay-cheque for his efforts, and it's pretty near the bottom of the barrel as far as his impressive filmography goes, but it's a definite improvement on Jenifer, albeit a slight one. It suffers from most of the same problems as its predecessor - a banal script, poor acting, and a decision to push sex and gore to the forefront in an attempt to conceal the obvious narrative and thematic shortcomings, but on this occasion at least there is the odd glimpse of the Argento of old, trying to break out of this cynical and boorish product.
The source material this time round is a short story by F. Paul Wilson, and one rather suited to the vegetarian, animal-friendly Argento's own personal tastes. A none too subtle indictment of the fur trade, it deals with the grisly ends met by various unsavoury characters after they become obsessed with a haul of enchanted raccoon pelts. At the centre of the debacle is Jake Feldman (Meat Loaf), a loathsome furrier who is besotted by striptease artist Shana (Ellen Ewusie) and her rear end. Jake gets a tip-off from his associate, poacher Jeb Jameson (John Saxon), that he has managed to get his hands on the mother load, but, when he arrives at the Jameson residence, he finds both the poacher and his son Larry (Michal Suchanek) dead and horrifically mutilated. Undeterred, Jake pockets the pelts and sets off to make himself rich and finally gain access to Shana's backside in the process.
First-time screenwriter Matt Venne claims that, when he heard that Argento had signed on to direct, he immediately went back and reworked the script to make it "more like a Dario Argento film". In doing so, the film becomes peppered with clumsy references - a close-up of black-gloved hands washing a bloodied knife, a severed hand, a mysterious old woman named "Mother Mater". These have little to no thematic relevance and come across more as half-hearted attempts to assure jaded fans that the master of old is indeed still in the driving seat. There is a distinct lack of cohesion to the film, with no discernable theme beyond the clumsy and inconsistent attempts to code the various characters as either hunter or hunted, while the plot disintegrates so quickly into a series of poorly paced grisly death sequences that the film becomes tedious before the first act is even out of the way - a bad sign by any stretch of the imagination. (You can, I suppose, find the same themes of transferral and infection of the mind that are present in Jenifer if you want to attach an auteurist reading to these episodes - personally, such an interpretation fails to convince me.)
Some of the various deaths are admittedly interesting - the stand-out being a seamstress who sews up her own eyes, mouth and nostrils - but, as with Jenifer, Argento's camera lingers too long on the effects, relishing gore for gore's sake and making the seams all too apparent (a hopelessly unrealistic dummy of John Saxon's battered head being the most embarrassing). Suspiria and Deep Red also lingered on at times unrealistic effects, but they were justified by the heightened artistic and supernatural context, and the set-pieces were executed with enough imagination and passion for their lack of realism not to be an issue, and in some respects to work as a catalyst. If latter-day Fulci-style spurting arteries and staved-in heads are what Venne and the Masters of Horror team think of as quintessential Argento, they have clearly failed to understand what made his earlier films so special. Indeed, in retrospect I find myself yearning for The Card Player's controversially bloodless murders.
Having said that, the visual style is clearly several steps up from the lifeless hackery of Jenifer. Argento retains the former project's cinematographer, Attila Szalay, but this time they allow their imagination to run wilder in terms of lighting, with the rich reds and purples of Shana's strip-club impressing the most, and at times evoking a watered-down Suspiria, while the moody opening credits, set to a Claudio Simonetti score which recalls the wordless Edda Dell'Orso vocals of many an Ennio Morricone composition, and featuring slow pans over various animal skins, are suitably chilling. The visuals are inconsistent, though, and the scene in which Jake visits the Jamesons' ranch in the daylight are as flat as anything in Jenifer. On the whole, though, the imagery is considerably more arresting than that of the earlier project, although there is nothing as inventive as the design of Jenifer's deformed face.
Unfortunately, the acting is another story. While Stephen Webber was unimpressive in the lead role in Jenifer, he was at least competent, the same of which cannot be said for Meat Loaf, who chews the scenery like nothing on earth, screaming, slavering and stomping around with a face that could curdle milk, while even the reliable John Saxon struggles to make anything of a one-dimensional role that is an insult to the excellent material with which he had to work on his previous collaboration with Argento, Tenebre. Ellen Ewusie, meanwhile, is worse than virtually any other actress cast in an Argento film that I can think of, and, unlike most, doesn't have the excuse of having been dubbed to explain her awful performance. To be honest, it's a thankless role: she does little more than scream and spend the bulk of her screen-time with her breasts out. She's also a lesbian, and Venne, in his audio commentary, attempts to cast this as complex characterisation and a profound statement about how much she's willing to sacrifice in order to get her hands on the fur coat made from the pelts, but in reality this little detail only exists in order to allow for a good old-fashioned gratuitous girl-on-girl sex scene. The Masters of Horror team presumably think that this sort of thing, in addition to gallons of blood, can be considered "pushing the boundaries", but it all reeks a little of desperation. The two women look so uncomfortable during their sex scene that it's hard not to feel sorry for them.
There's little more that can be said about Pelts. It's closer to Z-grade Troma than to vintage Argento, and the maestro of old could probably have directed this film blindfolded and with one arm tied behind his back, but gorehounds will presumably get a kick out of the copious amounts of Karo syrup on display. I try not to worry myself too much about attaching any sort of auteurist reading to this project, because I don't see either this or Jenifer as "Dario Argento films" in the traditional sense - the Fiat commercial he and Ronnie Taylor shot in the mid-80s has a more deserved place in his oeuvre than either of these TV-movies. The end result is better than Jenifer, but once again it uses the Argento name to market a generic, poorly-written splatterfest that any number of no-name directors for hire could have pulled off. Pelts is ultimately really just a means to an end - apparently it is thanks to his Masters of Horror work that The Third Mother is being made at all. Them's the breaks, I guess, and, as such, I'm willing to accept half-baked Argento if it ultimately leads to some sort of a return to form.
Presented anamorphically in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Pelts generally looks very good indeed, albeit with its television origins at times visible. Detail levels are above average, and the rich coloured lighting of the strip-club comes across as vibrant and appropriately saturated, while the exterior daylight scenes show natural-looking skin tones. Contrast is sometimes a little inconsistent, owing perhaps to budgetary constraints rather than any fault of the transfer itself, while there are no visible compression problems.
Audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0 affairs, both English. Neither is exactly packed with imaginative audio design, but they do the job adequately, with the relative lack of rear channel effects not exactly surprising, given that the film was intended for television and therefore, for most viewers, stereo audio only. Claudio Simonetti's score gains the most benefit from the 5.1 mix, making it sound a little fuller. As with most Anchor Bay releases, there are no subtitles.
Less feature-packed than the DVD release of Jenifer, or indeed the bulk of the DVDs for the first season of Masters of Horror, Pelts nonetheless has some interesting gems to offer. The first up is an audio commentary by writer Matt Venne, who proves to be infectious in his enthusiasm and rather knowledgeable about Argento's filmography and the horror genre in general. His claims as to the thematical complexity of his script are not exactly convincing, but he is at least humble enough to admit to his own failings in places, where what he wrote was unclear and was misinterpreted by Argento and the crew. The track is, to some extent, clearly scripted, but this is no bad thing as it means that Venne is able to keep talking from beginning to end without resorting to repeating information or simply describing the action (although he does, rather unnecessarily, preface his discussions of many moments with comments such as "Now, the strip-club scene"). All in all, this is one of the stronger commentaries I can recall hearing recently.
Up next is Fleshing It Out: the making of Pelts, which, as the title suggests, is a general behind the scenes featurette. It runs for just over 13 minutes, and as such doesn't go into a great deal of detail, but it features contributions from Argento, Venne, Meat Loaf, cinematographer Attila Szalay and a handful of other key participants. Unsurprisingly, the main focus seems to be on how gruesome and gory the film is, and as such it lacks the insight conveyed in the the commentary. Also included is All Sewn Up, a 7 minute piece focusing on the complicated effects required for the scene in which the seamstress sews up her own eyes, nose and mouth, with copious comments from CGI supervisor Lee Wilson, effects make-up supervisor Howard Berger, and actress Elise Lew. The various before and after demonstrations, showing just how much CGI was involved, are quite fascinating, and the fact that Anthem Digital, the crew responsible for the imagery, are also in charge of the computer-generated imagery for the upcoming The Third Mother, bodes well for the quality of its effects.
Also included are the obligitary photo gallery, storyboards, the usual bio for Argento, and trailers for various other Anchor Bay DVD releases, including the Argento-helmed Jenifer, Trauma and The Card Player.
Anchor Bay have put together a decent package for Pelts. The film is one of the weakest products to which Argento has ever attached his name, but it's hard to find fault with the transfer or the quality of the (admittedly somewhat limited) extras. In any event, Argento completists are going to want to own this no matter what, so it gets the strongest recommendation I can give, considering the quality of the film itself.
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