Friday, October 21, 2011

Masters of Horror: Jenifer

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 4
Director: Dario Argento
Notable Films: Suspiria, Inferno, Opera
Director Trademarks Present: Obsession, the beauty of horror, shocking gore,
Plot Summary: Cop Frank Spivey (Steven Weber, who wrote the teleplay) shoots a deranged homeless man before he can kill a girl (Carrie Ann Fleming). Before dying, the man utters one word: Jenifer, the name of the girl. Although her body is desirable, Jenifer has a horribly deformed face, can't speak, and it's uncertain if she understands anything. Frank becomes obsessed with her, bringing her into his home, much to the dismay of his family. Soon, Frank's whole life is unraveling as Jenifer uses her body to control Frank and satiate her hunger for flesh.

Jenifer the character's problems are her ugly mug causes the world to treat her with scorn and she ultimately destroys all the men in her life. Jenifer the film's problems are its utter predictability, inability to craft believable characters, and absence of director Dario Argento's bravura sense of style. During my first go-around of Masters of Horror, this was my least favorite episode of the series, and after watching it again, it still is.

The biggest detriment to Jenifer is that once the setup is complete, the resolution is more or less a foregone conclusion. Instead of building an inevitable sense of dread, the film plods to the inevitable. Rather than tightening the screws, Argento throws in freaky sex scenes and shocking images: a disemboweled cat, Jenifer's drooling mouth, and the mutilated bodies of her victims. With all the atrocities piled on, the episode is akin to a freak show; there's no emotional connection, and you're just watching gross things happen.

Frank's family and co-workers don't factor much at all; for him to lose all that, there needed to be a deep connection between, but they're just kind of there and then gone. For that matter, Frank himself is not much a character. We're never sure why he sacrifices everything for Jenifer. It's implied Jenifer has cast some sort of spell on Frank, but that's never really explored.

Aspects of Jenifer herself work better, but she too is inconsistent. She's curiously child-like, more like a wounded animal than a vicious monster. Argento, in the past, has orchestrated death scenes that while viciously graphic and bloody were quite beautiful. That dichotomy of revulsion and beauty is represented in Jenifer. Except for Frank, every other character treats her with scorn or disgust, perhaps suggesting people create monsters. But there are just too many unanswered questions about her: where does she come from, is she human, is she a misguided innocent with grotesque hungers or a manipulative succubus, and why does she eat flesh?

Compared to his past work, Argento's direction is rather pedestrian. His work often felt like filmed nightmares. Not much made sense, but the images were so other-worldly and bizarre, you were drawn in. Except for a scene where Frank drinks in a bar and walks outside with the camera angle is tilted off-balance, Jenifer lacks his usual stylistic sensibility.

Before Masters of Horror, I had never seen a film directed by Argento. Since then, I've seen a number of them, many of them quite good. Personally, I'll stick with those in place of Jenifer. There are a lot of shocking, disgusting, and delirious moments but not enough to carry the film.

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