Saturday, November 19, 2005

Love Means Never Having to Say "You Ate WHAT?"

There are a few moments in Dario Argento's MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Jenifer" when you know, without a doubt, that the madman responsible for FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, DEEP RED, and SUSPIRIA is behind the camera. Ironically, one of them occurs when he's in front of the camera, his beady eyes peering through the window of a padded cell in a mental hospital. The other moments involve cats (cats must cross the street when they see Argento approaching) and his real bĂȘte noir, the female sex, which is herein portrayed as dominant and utterly enslaving to the male of the species.

Based on a comics story written by Bruce Jones and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, "Jenifer" was adapted by actor Steven Weber, who also stars as the protagonist Frank -- a policeman who, while on a stake-out, witnesses the attempted murder of a manacled woman and prevents it by firing his pistol at the heart of her assailant. The woman, Jenifer -- who has a very alluring body and a head of curly golden hair -- turns out to be not only monstrously disfigured of face but incapable of communicating with anything other than the most basic animal gestures. Her licking and nuzzling demonstrate how appreciative she is of her savior. Frank shrugs off official advice to seek counselling in the wake of the shooting and finds himself haunted by images from the encounter, of the woman bent over a metal drum in a soiled slip, which prompt him to attempt rough anal intercourse with his wife -- which isn't to her liking. When Frank learns that no provisions exist for Jenifer's safekeeping, he introduces her into his own home, just for a night or two... with disastrous results. We're not talking about a clash of personalities or the usual breaches of etiquette; Jenifer behaves in ways that simply cannot be overlooked or excused. Yet Frank does. Jenifer bewitches him.

What we have here is a contemporary update of that ancient monster known as the Succubus, and an enactment of the idea that love is blind -- or, to be more precise, that as long as a woman is good in bed, the rest is negotiable. I haven't read the original story, so I can't attest to the nature or quality of the adaptation, but I can tell you that this is the best English dialogue Argento has had to work with... maybe ever. I'm not saying that "Jenifer" is on the same level as his best feature films, which have more complex storylines, but however good his features have been, they are always written or co-written by Argento, who is a masterful stylist, a bold conceptualist, an innovative technician, and let's face it, a mediocre writer at best. I love most of his movies, but those I love, I tend to love in spite of their writing. Or at least in spite of their dialogue.

Whether it's "Mata Hari filing her report" in SUSPIRIA, the guy in TENEBRAE noting in a loopy Scots accent that a moping girl "looks like a turkey at Christmas time," or the hilarious confusion of The Three Sisters in INFERNO with "those black singers," Argento's consistently risible dialogue has become a perverse point of lovability among his devotées. But in "Jenifer," one senses that nothing is funny unless it was meant to be. Here, even the minor characters are interesting and believable, none of them made to stand out like sore thumbs by their alien behavior and manic conversation. The performances are spot-on too, with Weber coming across as believably possessed by the sexual vigor of this subhuman creature, superbly played by Carrie Fleming as a conundrum that is part-needy child, part-nourishing nymphomaniac, and part hell-spawn. Weber has a particularly great moment when a gruesome discovery leaves him momentarily unsure of whether to laugh or scream or vomit. Argento's direction is relaxed and confident, steering with true expertise from the mundane to the hallucinatory. He turns out to be a superb interpreter of outside material, and may he pursue more of it.

As with Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House" a couple of weeks ago, "Jenifer" takes some surprisingly pitch-black turns that would never have been allowed to stand in a commercial feature, and the sex is as graphic and animalistic as the violence. (Reportedly, the content actually went slightly overboard as far as Showtime was concerned, and a shot involving violence being dealt to a character's penis had to be excised for broadcast -- but it will be included in the DVD box set of the series coming from Anchor Bay next year.) Despite this unflinching quality, facets of humor and homage are accomodated as well, the latter manifesting in a rather audacious quotation of James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN (1931). In short, I liked "Jenifer" better than anything Argento has done since THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996), and of the two works, "Jenifer" is probably the more consistent and watchable. Yes, its circular structure is predictable -- hence, so is its ending -- nevertheless, it feels right and inevitable. If Frank had supported Jenifer's strange appetites any longer, who would have been the greater monster?

On a semi-personal note: One thing I've been noting from week to week on MASTERS OF HORROR is the name of Lee Wilson in the main titles. Lee, the series' visual effects supervisor, is an old friend with whom I've fallen out of touch. We met on the set of VIDEODROME in 1981, where he was working as part of Michael Lennick's video effects team. Lee went on to design/animate Brundle's computer screen displays in THE FLY, and he's the guy who made Jeremy Irons twins in DEAD RINGERS. He eventually left Toronto for Vancouver, where it became the busier of the two cities in terms of film production. What I remember best about Lee, besides his fondness for Van Morrison and Lene Lovich, was that he was one of the first bonafide Argento freaks I'd ever met. Before it ever came to home video, I taped a pay-per-view broadcast of UNSANE (the hacked-to-pieces US version of TENEBRAE) and shipped a copy to Lee post-haste. On one of my subsequent trips to Toronto, he repaid that kindness by making me a tape of his super-rare Japanese laserdisc of TENEBRAE, called SHADOW, and treating me to a preview of all the uncensored gore sequences. I also remember tapes of SUSPIRIA and OPERA being swapped back and forth, all of which helped to fuel my FANGORIA article "The Butchering of Dario Argento" (included in THE VIDEO WATCHDOG BOOK, still available from our website). Lee and I fell out of touch after his move, which coincided with VW making my life less leisurely, but he tried calling earlier this week -- for the first time in many years -- just as we were halfway out the door to a dinner engagement. Donna took the message, and he said he'd call back. Maybe he wanted to make sure that I caught this week's episode and was aware that he had finally got to work with his hero. I was very pleased to see Lee's name on an Argento film (and on such a good one) and I hope I get to hear some of the stories he must have to tell.

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