When I wrote my review of Jenifer, I noted that it was unique among Dario Argento’s body of work in a few ways, for better or worse. Jenifer herself was imagined by Argento as an alien life form, even if that wasn’t explicit in the text itself, making her the only extraterrestrial in his canon (unless I’m in for the shock of a lifetime when I get to Dracula 3D); further, the effects work on Jenifer was grotesque and monstrous, with the only similar prosthetic work in his films that I can recall being the monstrous child in Phenomena. Argento’s second Masters of Horror episode, Pelts, is also quite unlike his previous work, although not in the way that is frequently referenced. Nearly every review of Pelts mentions the short film’s “political message,” especially given the generally apolitical nature of all of Argento’s work, but I don’t really think that there is one, at least not in the way the uninitiated interpret the word. As a composition scholar, I am obliged to perceive and interpret all forms of composition and creation as inherently political, as all creation is an act of expressing individuality and thus is a political act in and of itself; by choosing what to include and what to exclude in the created thing, be it a poem, speech, or painting, the author/composer makes a de facto “political” statement. And, yes, the fact that Argento focused this film on the fur trade does lend itself to the assumption that the director is making a capital-P “Political” statement, but I don’t think that was Argento’s goal, nor do I think that decrying fur played a larger role in the inception of this plot than wanting to show a man skinning himself of his own flesh and then working backwards to create parallelism did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Jake Feldman (the one and only Meat Loaf Aday) is a fur trader who lusts after Shanna (Ellen Ewusie), a stripper who is disgusted by Feldman’s possessiveness and the fact that, as a furrier, he constantly reeks of dead flesh. She has made it clear that she will dance for—but never sleep with—him, no matter how pathetic he is. One of his suppliers, Jeb Jameson (John Saxon, who previously worked with Argento in Tenebrae), is an old drunk who takes his son Larry (Michal Suchánek) into the woods to check the raccoon traps he set earlier. Larry expresses some concern when he realizes that his father is taking him beyond a warning fence, onto the land of Mother Mater (Brenda McDonald), but the elder Jameson scolds his son for his superstition. The two come upon stone ruins, which Larry notices are carved with the faces of raccoons, while his father instructs him to crush the windpipes of the animals they have trapped, apparently in abundance, and to take a baseball bat and crush the skulls of any raccoon that does not die instantly. Jeb calls Feldman to tell him that he has secured a large number of pelts, the most beautiful he has ever seen. Later, after the two have skinned the animals and their pelts are drying, Jeb heads to bed while Larry ecstatically examines the animal hides with a spiritual reverence. Moved by their beauty, he goes upstairs to his father’s room and crushes his skull with the baseball bat before gleefully setting up a trap and then killing himself with it.
Feldman and his lackey find the two in this position and, thinking quickly, take off with the raccoon skins. Various workers in Feldman’s shop begin to self-harm in ways that are reminiscent of their interactions with the furs in the coat-making process, until the coat is finally completed. In the meantime, Feldman visits Mother Mater, who warns him that the nearby fenced-off woods are protected by the “pine lights,” which he laughs off when he realizes she means raccoons. Feldman presents the coat to Shanna, who sleeps with him in exchange for it. He excuses himself to the restroom, where he proceeds to skin himself, cutting off his own flesh in roughly the shape of a tank top and then attempts to gift this flesh to Shanna, who flees from him. Feldman pursues her to the elevator, where her hand is trapped and then torn off (symbolic of the animal that gnawed its own foot off to escape the trap), and then they both die. The end.
I remember watching Tenebrae and being shocked by how unusually violent it was in comparison to the (comparatively) understated violence of the films that preceded it; Pelts gives that film a run for its money. Argento brought back Howard Berger, who had done the make-up and visual effects on Jenifer, and he was again interviewed on this DVD. Berger, who has worked with director Quentin Tarantino numerous times, recalled in his interview for this project that Tarantino’s directions on the set of Kill Bill largely consisted of “make it bloodier than Tenebrae.” He felt he had come full circle by contributing to this project, citing that it was the goriest thing he had ever worked on, and I can’t argue with that. There’s not a lot to engage an audience here on a philosophical level (and certainly nothing on a political level), but there’s more than enough to satisfy even the sickest fans of gore. I consider myself to have a fairly strong constitution, steeled by many a midnight horror flick, but some scenes were almost too much for even my stomach. The scene in which Feldman flays himself is horrifying in all the best ways, and the scene in which the younger Jameson serenely plunges his face into a bear trap carefully combined tension and the grotesque in perfect measure. That’s a real feather in the cap of the people who worked on the short’s practical effects, but it also highlights the poor quality of much of the CGI work. The worst offender in this arena has to be the scene in which one of Feldman’s employees sews her eyes, mouth, and nose shut; there’s no real reason why this couldn’t have been done practically using a dummy head, especially given Berger’s talents, and it looks terrible and rushed in the final product.
Although Meat Loaf is most well known as a musician and his most memorable role since The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a supporting one in Spice World as the Girls’ driver, he has a willingness to completely immerse himself in a part the way that many actors who are more “legitimate” or noteworthy do not. Feldman is an utterly vile person, and any humanization that he has is as a result of Meat Loaf’s surprisingly nuanced and careful performance. Saxon is the only other actor of note in the production, and he does the opposite, playing up the campiness of the Jameson character; it’s a bit of a relief to see him killed off so early, as that frees Saxon from sullying himself too much. The rest of the cast is largely comprised of nobodies; each of them has an IMDb page full of “Man #3,” “Bouncer,” “Tough Guy,” and “Stripper #4” credits, and there’s not much to say about any of them. Ellen Ewusie really gets the worst of this, however, as her interview (like Moran Atias’s in the supplemental materials for Mother of Tears) illuminates her as a woman saddled with attempting to discuss building the background and motivations of a character who exists solely for titillation, and I wish I could see her in a role that requires more than that.
Overall, this was an experience that I neither loved nor hated. The message is less “fur is murder” and more “selfishness is self-destructive,” which is all well and good but not very groundbreaking. The acting is a mixed bag, and there’s so much gore packed into this short run time that it is worth a watch if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s by far the better of Argento’s two Masters episodes, and while it’s not very good, it is an unusual part of the director’s canon that gives some insight into his mind that is lacking in his other works.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond