Masters of Horror: Dario Argento: Jenifer (DVD)

“What did you do? What did you do?”

Dario Argento is a difficult director to write about. Many movie fans love the dark thrills in his films, such as Susperia and Opera, while others bemoan the sometimes slow pacing and dreamlike narratives. It’s my feeling that Argento is an “in between” horror director. His style falls somewhere in between the blood n’ guts slasher subgenre and the more high-minded psychological thrillers that hit it big in the ’90s such as The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en. Because he often crosses lines from one style or tone to the next, he can be both a frustrating and fascinating director to watch. For his entry in Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology, Argento again jumps boundaries, combining horror, eroticism, dark humor and even some romance with Jenifer.

Frank Spivey (Stephen Weber, Wings) is a cop on his routine beat when he comes across an out-of-control man about to kill a young woman. Frank shoots and kills the man, only to discover that the girl, Jenifer (Carrie Anne Fleming, The Tooth Fairy) has a horribly disfigured face. Feeling remorse about shooting another man, Frank seeks to help Jenifer, taking her out of a sleazy asylum and bringing her home to stay with him and his family. Although she appears fragile and traumatized, Jenifer has some big appetites, which Frank will discover soon enough.

As far as movie monsters go, Jenifer is an intriguing creation. Those crazy guys at KNB Effects have outdone themselves with the makeup job here, making Jenifer truly inhuman. That image on the cover art is only a hint of just how grotesque her face truly is. And yet, there’s an alluring element to her as well, thanks to the golden blonde hair, the curves in all the appropriate places, and the long legs that go from here to Nebraska. There’s also a sad, tragic side to the character. We don’t know what kinds of terrors she’s experienced in the past, but most of the time, she carries herself in a frightened, almost haunted way, like a child just woken up from a nightmare. She’s a monster, a sexbomb, and a victim all at once. While watching, you’re never sure if you’re supposed to be afraid of Jenifer, turned on by her, or feel pity for her, and I’m sure these stomach-turning mixed feelings are exactly what Argento wants from us.

Providing the human side of the story is Stephen Weber as our hapless cop, Frank. This character is a little tougher to understand, unlike Jenifer, who more or less acts on instinct. Frank starts out with a job and a decent but not perfect home life. Although his situation is not an idyllic suburban paradise, his wife does make some attempt at marital bliss—a rather enthusiastic attempt, actually—it seems like quite a jump for him to be so seduced by Jenifer so quickly. Is he just pathetic and horny? You could make that case. But closer inspection reveals more going on here. First, Frank’s unresolved remorse over shooting and killing another man might be what drives him to make a connection with this strange, animalistic woman. Or, if you read farther between the lines and assume Jenifer is a lot more cunning than she seems, then take a look at the scratch she leaves on Frank’s hand. We’re reminded of this scratch throughout the story. Is this Jenifer’s way of infecting Frank, putting him under her spell? Again, you could make that case.

I know a lot of the above doesn’t sound too scary. Don’t worry fright fans, Argento hasn’t let you down. This one’s filled with jump scares, icky gore, and “Oh, my God!” moments. Some might argue that the plot is predictable, but there are a lot of little surprises along the way, and they’re some pretty ghoulish surprises. Argento sought to push the envelope with this one, and the featurettes reveal two deleted scenes that were too intense even for Showtime. I dare you not to cringe when you see them.

Audio and video are both excellent, which is, as always, to be expected with a new release. This is the part in every Masters of Horror where we say, “Although a season one box set would have been preferred, it’s nice to each of these discs is packed with extras.” That statement applies nicely to Jenifer. The four featurettes cover a lot of ground, both with the making of Jenifer and Argento’s overall career. Two interviews with Weber and Fleming cover a lot of the same ground, but have a few interesting bits. The makeup featurette shows Fleming’s morning routine, and all the work it takes to turn her into the grotesque Jenifer. Weber adds more thoughts in a commentary, with questions from Anchor Bay commentary staple Perry Martin. This, too, repeats some of the information from the featurettes, but is worth listening to for Weber’s self-depreciating humor. There’s also an Argento bio, and the screenplay and screensavers on DVD-ROM. Overall, it’s another excellent DVD presentation for a Masters of Horror episode.

The Verdict

Jenifer is creepy, sexy, disgusting, and darkly funny all at once. In other words, it’s Dario Argento doing his thing. Not guilty.

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