Last night, Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR presented the sixth episode of its second season, and the first I could call a qualified success. Up to now, the season has been a disaster, pairing uninspired veteran directors with shapeless, simplistic stories that have sought to please the show's viewers in the dumbest way possible: by seeking new and ever more inventive ways to tear the human body apart. It has not been until this latest episode, Dario Argento's "Pelts," that the season has attempted to explore horror in any sense other than graphic violence and dismemberment. "Pelts" is itself overloaded with both, yet it also contains moments of dark magic and enchantment and provides Argento's fans with set pieces that echo some of the "greatest hits" of his feature filmography. With very few exceptions, the directors working on this show have checked their known personalities at the door and delivered fairly anonymous results; but here, especially in the episode's closing minutes, there are enough echoes of classic bits from DEEP RED and TENEBRAE that most horror fans could probably guess who was behind the camera. True, "Pelts" seems more like the work of a fan of Dario Argento than Argento himself, but that's been largely true of Argento's work since OPERA (1987) -- the ferocious vitality of THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996) notwithstanding.
Scriped by Matt Venne (who wrote the forthcoming sequel to WHITE NOISE) from a short story by F. Paul Wilson, "Pelts" is the magic realist tale of Jake (Meat Loaf Aday), a seedy furrier who cranks cheap coats out of his low-rent sweatshop by day and hangs around a stripclub by night, indulging his obsession with an exotic dancer named Shanna (Ellen Ewusie). He pays for private lapdances, but what he really wants is anal sex, which doesn't interest Shanna, who is a lesbian on her own time. When Jeb Jameson (John Saxon), one of Jake's hillbilly trappers, calls with word that he's lucked into a dozen or more raccoon pelts of unbelievable quality, Jake makes a house call and discovers the trapper and his son dead... and that the pelts, left hanging in the cellar, are all that were promised and more. The celestial, intoxicating quality of these furs (digitally accentuated by visual effects supervisor Lee Wilson) is such that Jake is immediately convinced that they could be his ticket to claim anything in the world he might desire, including Shanna. What he doesn't know is that the pelts belong to a supernatural species of nocturnal animal native to the forest surrounding an ancient ruin -- or is it rune?
Argento has always demonstrated a tender affinity for animals in his work, and though "Pelts" necessarily involves some nasty violence toward animals (all faked), the episode's admiring shots of the animal skins are invested with the appropriate sense of sorrow and sacrifice. And the violence inflicted against the animals is subsequently turned in kind against those who have derived pleasure from their furs. For all the bludgeoning horror of the episode, it finds its greatest strength in a scene where Jake, desperate to find a pair of these special raccoons to use for mating purposes to keep the coats coming, takes a bottle of moonshine to "Mother Mater," a toothless old cackler who lives in a shack near the runic temple where the animals were first trapped. The character's name obviously hearkens back to Argento's Three Mothers (heralded in SUSPIRIA, INFERNO and the forthcoming THE THIRD MOTHER -- a movie whose title really must be changed), which keeps the attentive viewer on edge throughout the scene, and Argento's "fourth mother" helps the scene build to the nerve-rattling pitch hoped-for. Better still are the scene's cutaway shots to numerous raccoon faces assembled outside the shack's windows, which strike a complex note of eerie otherworldliness that the series hasn't touched since Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House" in Season 1. That the barbarism of animal skinning results in the ideal garb for a fashion model also tickles an old and much-missed nerve in Argento's work, namely the relationship between violence and haute couture. And it's fun to see John Saxon back in Argento harness, for the first time since TENEBRAE (1982).
Like a SAW-era updating of Robert Bloch's oft-filmed story "The Weird Tailor," "Pelts" tempers its savagery with just enough allusion to unearthly fantasy to arouse the imagination while it offends our other senses. An improvement on Argento's first season episode "Jenifer," I believe, and a welcome change of fortune for a show that we'd all like to see succeed artistically as well as commercially.