The Perfection (2019)

On paper, The Perfection sounds like it should be exactly My Thing. It’s an over-the-top, weirdly horny, queer horror cheapie after all – the kind of heightened trash that clashes cheap made-for-VOD genre sensibilities with an exquisite fine art setting. That’s why it’s so disappointing that I ended up hating the film early & often, practically despising it more for being almost enjoyable yet barely watchable than I would have if it had no potential for greatness. Only outdone by Under the Silver Lake in terms of wasted potential, this is truly one of the biggest letdowns of the cinematic year so far, but I almost feel as if I’m letting myself down by failing to enjoy it. It’s like someone poisoned my catnip.

I can’t get too far into the premise of The Perfection here without ruining its intended payoffs for those who might still enjoy it. The what-the-fuck-is-happening quality of the plot is one of its strongest assets, as long as you aren’t as utterly appalled by its unearned reveals as I ultimately was. It’s at least safe to say that Allison Williams stars as a world-class cellist who returns to the music academy that trained her as a child before her years of seclusion in caring for her sick mother & intensive therapy. The music academy’s director (Steven Weber) is cautiously suspicious of her return but delighted for the opportunity to hear her play with his new star pupil (Logan Browning). Things escalate quickly as the two women’s exquisite musical collaboration transforms into a passionate sexual tryst and then, almost immediately, a complex series of betrayals, revenge, cruelty, and bloodshed. This first act set-up prompts you to question the history, intentions, and mental stability of all the players involved, and the perverse fun of its fallout is in those mysteries being fully, exploitatively exposed. To reveal any more in this review would be a crime I’m not willing to commit, except to say that all of The Perfection’s twisty roads only lead to disappointment.

There’s plenty for me to complain about here. As with the similarly promising-but-disappointing Always Shine, The Perfection immediately hinders itself with gimmicky early-aughts-horror editing tricks – practically begging for audiences’ patience with promises that “Things will get wacky & crazy later! Hold tight!” Besides the artificial jump scares generated purely through those edits, the film repeatedly rewinds scenes of intense violence & betrayal to over-explain what was really going on – when those rewound flashbacks only reveal was already blatant & obvious. Ideally, the film would have just let its trashy premise clash against its pristine High Art setting, as superior films like In Fabric, Grand Piano, and Argento’s Opera have before it. Instead, everything about it comes across as cheap except that it happens to have a cello soundtrack. The film is also never quite as surprising as it believes itself to be, telegraphing many of its shocking Twists long before it rewinds itself to explain what was already obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a movie before – undercutting its own value as a what-the-fuck-is-happening oddity at every turn. Nothing typifies this more than a last-minute wig reveal where a central character yanks off their own wig to expose a smaller, scragglier wig underneath . . . and not much else.

The truth is, through, that I would have readily forgiven all these minor sins against good taste if the third act’s morbid obsession with sexual assault hadn’t been such a letdown. This a violently gory, sensually horny, playfully twisty genre film that touches on Lovecraftian fears of breaking through reality to reach divine, horrible transcendence through beautiful music. I don’t understand, then, what it finds so alluring about the horror canon’smost repugnantly pedestrian go-to for creating tension & conflict for female characters. It’s as unearned as it is boring, frankly. You can’t promise your audience the endless horrors of the great abyss only to deliver the cheapest, laziest form of cinematic violence there is – especially since that violence has a long history of exploitation without justification in the themes of the text.

I don’t begrudge anyone who managed to have a good time with this ludicrous schlock. In fact, I envy anyone who did. I even suspect my distaste for it will cause conflict with other Swampflixers around Best of the Year list-making season, since it’s the exact kind of thing we usually praise around here. Indeed, I even found plenty to enjoy from scene to scene: the psychedelic freak-outs, the gory body horror, the comical over-utilization of split diopter shots, the tension of a world-class cellist summoning all their willpower to not shit themselves on a public bus, etc. I just can’t personally get past how much the film wastes its own potential in its editing, its handling of sexual abuse, and its eagerness to over-explain and then re-explain to the audience what’s already embarrassingly obvious. The fact that it should have easily been one of my favorite films of the year only makes it stand out as one of my most hated, however personal that reaction may be.

-Brandon Ledet

Jenifer (2005)

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Steven Weber is not a movie star. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Every time I see him, all I can ever think about is his character from Wings, a sitcom that ran for the better part of a decade and then was syndicated for the entirety of my formative years. I can only see Brian Hackett. Even when Weber is supposed to be Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s poorly overproduced miniseries remake of The Shining, or whatever his character’s name was in that Larry David movie that Larry David hates, he’ll always be slacker Brian Hackett to me. The inverse is also true; Argento is not a director who should be bound by the limits of the small screen, as was seen in Do You Like Hitchcock? and here. Apparently Weber has a talent for screenplay writing, which he exercised here in this first season Masters of Horror episode, adapting a horror story from a 1974 issue of Creepy: “Jenifer.” This is also Dario Argento’s return to America after Trauma, which he chose to shoot in what he described as “featureless Minnesota” for presumably thematic reasons that I still don’t understand. All discussion about his crumbling auteurship aside, it can never be said that Argento does not put all of his energy into his work. The Masters of Horror DVDs are some of the best you can ask for, featuring hours of special features for each episode, including interviews with actors who worked with the director of that episode earlier in his career as well as featurettes and other behind-the-scenes footage; here, it’s really evident that Argento, despite being in his sixties at the time, is working just as hard on this one hour film as he did on the exalted films from earlier in his career. It’s just too bad that the end product isn’t really all that worthwhile.

Frank Spivey (Weber) is a police officer who shoots and kills a derelict when the man refuses to drop the giant blade he is holding to the neck of a woman whose face is unseen. With his dying breaths, the man warns Spivey that he can’t comprehend what he has done, before Spivey sees the face of the woman he rescued and recoils in horror. Jenifer (Carrie Anne Fleming), as we will learn she is named, has an attractive body but a terrifyingly hideous face, featuring enlarged and asymmetrical black eyes and a malformed mouth full of jagged teeth; she also drools profusely and her tongue appears to be covered in food bits at all times. Spivey becomes obsessed with her despite her appearance, inviting her to stay in his home while they look for her family. Things start to go awry almost immediately, as Jenifer gorily eats the family cat, prompting Mrs. Spivey and the couple’s son to leave the home, but Jenifer and Spivey begin to have sex and Spivey seems addicted. When he cannot curb Jenifer’s cannibalistic outbursts (which culminate in the killing and eating of the little girl who lives next door), Spivey moves Jenifer to a cabin in the woods and takes a job as a shelf stocker at a grocery store operated by a single mother (Cynthia Garris). Jenifer can’t help but kill yet again, eviscerating and feeding upon the entrails of the shop owner’s teenage son (Jeffrey Ballard). Realizing that he can never stop her, Spivey takes Jenifer into the woods to kill her, but is shot by a hunter before he can complete the deed; Jenifer goes with the hunter, to begin the cycle anew.

Jenifer succeeds in one way that Argento’s previous films didn’t: Jenifer herself is positively grotesque and disgusting. As in the original comic story, there’s never an explanation given as to where she came from or why she does what she does, although Argento imagined that she was an alien life form of some kind and instructed the makeup department accordingly, making this the first and only appearance of an alien life form in his body of work to date. I mention this not only because it is noteworthy, but because much of the short itself is not. Everything interesting about Jenifer is revealed and discussed in the supplementary materials, not in the text proper, which is a problem. The plot is paper thin, and the fact that this is apparently a recursive narrative is the only thing that makes it notable at all. Of the two television projects that Argento worked on in 2005, this one manages to be stronger than Do You Like Hitchcock? in its sense of style and its lush Oregon landscape, but this is still a paper-thin plot about a man whose sex drive is stronger than his will to live or his oath to protect people, which makes him difficult to care about. Although it is apparent that Jenifer is warping his mind somehow from the moment the two meet, we spend no time with Spivey before this event, so we have no way of knowing if he was ever a decent cop and good father who is turned by his weakness to his lusts, or if he was always as pathetic as he is presented to be at the conclusion.

Masters of Horror was always better in concept than in action. In practice, it seems that most of directors invited to be part of the series were past the point where they or their points of view could be said to have any cultural relevancy. The BTS materials demonstrate that Argento was somewhat hamstrung by the sensibilities of the network, even though you’d expect Showtime to have a loose hand. A monstrous woman with a hideously deformed face but great breasts eviscerating and feasting upon a cat and a seven year old girl? Fine. But show her chowing down on a victim’s penis? Too far! According to Howard Berger, who designed and applied the prosthetics and makeup for Jenifer, Argento also asked him to design a horribly alien murder vagina, which he then crafted out of chicken parts and prosthetic teeth; Showtime nixed this idea as well. And frankly, I don’t know how to feel about that. At the time of filming, Argento was still physically directing his actors, acting out how he wanted them to move and react to things like a person truly passionate about their craft; he was also trying to push the boundaries of horror and good taste, taking no prisoners and holding back nothing in the pursuit of an artistic endeavor. But not being able to realize his perversely horrifying or horrifyingly perverse ideas isn’t really the problem with the final product. Passion isn’t imagination, or talent, or relevance. It’s vital but insufficient, and the problems with Jenifer are that it’s just too blasé, too 1990s The Outer Limits, too television. Jenifer herself will give you nightmares, but that’s the discomfort of the uncanny valley, not tension. The story is repetitive despite its short run time (“Will Jenifer kill again? Yes.”), and it has no staying power.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond