Apparently, wild animalistic sex will get an otherwise sensible man to do just about anything. He will abandon his wife and son for a facially freaked out partner who makes up for her frightening physical deformities (and tendency toward eating human flesh) with some supposedly masterful bedroom aptitude. It’s the great male fantasy, the fulfillment of a guy’s inherent instinctual needs without the unnecessary elements of responsibility, communication, or post-coital snuggling. At least, that’s what actor / screenwriter Stephen Weber and his partner in pathetic fright flick crime, Italian genre maestro Dario Argento would have you believe. Both men express this mind-blowing sentiment as part of the bonus features that arrive with the latest DVD installment of Showtime’s mediocre Masters of Horror.
The tale they tell is entitled Jenifer, and if the lack of an additional ‘f’ bothers you, the irrationality of the plot will be just as jarring. Weber plays Frank Spivey, a cop who witnesses a weird attempted murder one day. A man, face frozen in a determined death mask of dementia, is trying to hack up a half-dressed blond. Shooting him dead, Spivey soon learns why he was so stressed. Jenifer is a horrible human oddity, a woman with the body of an angel and the face of a fiend. She seems feral and without feelings, and yet somehow, her all black eyes appear to reach out to Spivey. Suddenly, he’s bringing her into his home, arguing for her inability to care for herself, and accepting the occasional blowjobs from his new live-in she creature. Eventually, Spivey is so overwhelmed with Jenifer’s booty abilities that he abandons reality and moves out to a random cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, every person he befriends ends up as a dinner for our determined demon.
If you can’t guess where this story is going, then you haven’t been paying attention to the last several years of cinematic scares. Jenifer is the kind of predictable implausible claptrap that announces its intentions with its pre-broadcast blurb. This is not a new or novel narrative, and as a writer, Weber brings nothing fresh or original to same. Instead, one gets the sneaking suspicion that the actor merely wrote the role for himself as a means to fake fornicate with a hot honey (the sexy Carrie Fleming in some bad b-movie monster make-up). As the plot contrivances creek into place, as the expected character motivation moves the story along to is perfectly banal conclusion, we wonder what the series saw in this sloppy, sappy saga. And once we’ve seen the name of the directing credits, our concern grows even deeper.
Now granted, Dario Argento is not experiencing one of his more formative, influential creative periods right now. As fans foam over the possibility of the Mediterranean macabre master revising his classic Three Mothers Trilogy (begun with the undeniable masterpieces Suspiria and Inferno), they are reminded of his less than stellar output since 1987’s Opera. With the exceptions of The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and Sleepless (2001), Argento has failed to replicate his artistic intentions from the past. Instead, he seems to be pulling a jaded John Carpenter, doing whatever, whenever for a paycheck and a chance to clear the cobwebs from his still vital, and if now overly erratic, creativity.
Jenifer is definitely one of the director’s low points. Missing most of the signature cinematics that have come to define his style, we witness very little of the moviemaking magic that made him a name in the first place. Instead, the aesthetic here is very much like the barebones, no bullshit approach he took with his 2004 crime thriller The Card Player. Devoid of saturated colors, long, languid tracking shots, and the kind of gross-out invention that made his movies so fascinating, all we end up with here is an overabundance of nudity and the occasional sequence of Jenifer snacking on some fake body parts.
With his comments infiltrating the added content as part of this digital presentation and the overall sentiment that what he speaks is the truth, this does feel sort of like a dirty old man’s version of dread. It’s sad when someone who strove so hard to avoid the trappings of your typical Western horror film now falls so hard for many of its more pedestrian formulas. Perhaps the most clichéd concept revolves around Weber’s inability to control himself once Jenifer turns on the lust light. There are hints—so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable—that there is a supernatural element to the gal’s allure. Spivey gets a scratch on his hand, and in a matter of days it is enflamed, and full of infection. In addition, Spivey seems capable of controlling himself, on occasion. After he abandons his home for a life on the lam (Jenifer has left more than a few corpses in their wake), he gets a job at a general store. He’s not hampered by horniness, and even returns to their hideout talking personal limits and control.
But that’s not the scenario Argento or Weber want to explore. Instead, we see a couple of deleted scenes where both men pushed the sexual content to the very limits of Showtime’s pay cable capabilities. Ever wonder what it would look like if a monster gave a human head. There is a snippet of such a sequence here. How about a teenage boy having his boner bitten off by a malformed Miss. Yep, there’s one of those, as well. In fact, it seems the corporeal was far more intriguing than the creepy to the men involved in this project. Like a bunch of flailing frat boys living out their goofiest Goth dreams, Jenifer avoids anything approaching horror to keep things warm, squishy and ersatz-erotic.
In truth, all of this would be more or less palatable had Argento delivered it in a manner reminiscent of the chilling conclusion to Deep Red, the amazing opening murder set piece from Suspiria, or the atmosphere of terror he attained in Inferno. Even a few lifts from Opera or Stendhal would have been acceptable. Instead, there is nothing scary in this storyline. We anticipate every shock (Spivey can’t find Jenifer, but there’s a door just out of frame—wonder if she’ll be there, feasting on a neighbor child?) and reject the ridiculous characterizations. No one here acts normal - not the wife who ends up walking out or the adolescent son who sees the semi-clad creature as strangely ‘hot’. All the motivation is mired in a meaningless attempt to connect the carnal with the craven. Argento and Weber are convinced that arousal can and will lead to atrocities. How they decided to defend such a position is Jenifer‘s major problem.
All throughout the first season of Masters of Horror (quite surprisingly, a second season is in the works, with Argento back to helm another offering) well known names like Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Tobe Hooper argued for their irrelevance in today’s terror market. With movies like Saw and Hostel showing more invention and insight than several of the supposed experts’ entries, the only thing masterful here is the hype that tries to convince us of the program’s fright potential. Of course, the one hour format is a hindrance. Horror needs room to grow and fester, and looking at the clock to control the running time is antithetical to such a concept. Even with a couple of days to defend itself, however, Jenifer would never be able to support is shivers. This flaccid fright flick is all foreplay and no macabre money shot.