Dario Argento?s ?Jenifer,? his contribution to the first season of Showtime?s Masters of Horror series, split the fan community down the middle. Some thought that it was a worthy addition to Argento?s well-respected body of work, but many others (myself included) felt severely disappointed by the piece, seeing in it a hollow, predictable story that, despite a potentially intriguing central concept, featured barely a hint of the director?s trademark style. Despite the divided opinions, Argento came back for the second season of MoH and this time around, he?s contributed an episode that may not be very good in the traditional sense, but one which is unmistakably a work by the same demented genius who brought Suspiria, Tenebrae, and many other classics to the screen.
Pelts stars ex-Bat Out of Hell singer and Rocky Horror veteran Meat Loaf (here billed as Meat Loaf Aday) as Jake, the ill-tempered owner of a sweatshop fur factory who lusts desperately after an exotic dancer named Shana (the stunning Ellen Ewusie). When an old redneck coot (Tenebrae veteran John Saxon, making a big impression in a small role) calls Jake with a too-good-to-be-true offer of some extremely rare raccoon pelts, the beefy furrier can?t resist, seeing the pelts as his entrée to Shana?s private delights (a coat made from them would allow her to fulfill her dreams of being a high-class runway model). But the raccoons aren?t quite what they seem ? their coats are glossy and high-quality, but the animals themselves were culled from a strange, hidden glen filled with carved megaliths. What Jake discovers is that anyone who comes in contact with the forbidden furs incurs the mystical wrath of these creatures ? mysteriously referred to as ?the Pine Lights? ? and are driven to extreme acts of violence against themselves and those around them.
While not breaking any new ground with its screenplay (adapted by newcomer Matt Venne from an F. Paul Wilson short story), Pelts packs enough perverse desires and horrifying violence into one hour to make it one of the most intense and adult of all the MoH episodes (you?ll never forget the baseball bat sequence, for instance). Its disturbing sequences of self-flaying and animal death put it almost on par with Takashi Miike?s first season Imprint, and it?s upsetting in a way that few of the other MoH episodes manage to be (Garris even told Venne that it was their ?wet? episode for the season). Nevertheless, the show still suffers from many of the same problems most of the other episodes have succumbed to ? lazy writing, rushed production design and shooting, and the central problem of a good nutshell of an idea for a short film stretched uncomfortably to an hour?s length.
But Argento succeeds in making this one his own, as he never did to any great degree in ?Jenifer,? imbuing many of the scenes (with the help of regular series cinematographer Attila Szalay) with a dark, poetic atmosphere that allows you to believe this came from the same man who made Inferno and Opera (helped in no small degree by Claudio Simonetti?s fabulous, fantasy-tinged score). But more than any other of his previous works, Pelts is highly reminiscent of Argento?s Phenomena, in the way that it mixes magical reality with abject horror, not to mention its fascination with insects and woodland creatures and a fun, over-the-top, no holds barred mood to the whole endeavor (?You stink like rotting flesh,? says one character to another at one point). And like Argento?s segment in Two Evil Eyes, the characters are another rogues gallery of fetish-filled, coveting grotesques, all of whom desire one thing above all others (for example, the furs, wealth, sex, or fame) and will do anything to get it; like the best E.C. comics stories, there?s not a sympathetic character in the whole bunch and they all get their just desserts. It doesn?t make much sense in the end, it gets bogged down in its own exposition (the imagery is powerful enough that it should have been allowed to speak for itself), and it does drag a bit mid-way, but Pelts certainly has a lot of fun getting there, and like few of the other episodes, it gives viewers an inkling of why the series has the word "Master? in its title.
Anchor Bay?s DVD presents the episode in a widescreen TV-friendly 1.78:1 transfer that accurately captures the wide range of light conditions and tones in the film, from the murky strip club interiors to those omnipresent Vancouver forests. Extras for this first release of the second season are somewhat limited compared with the more elaborate supplements Anchor Bay granted most of the first season discs, and include a somewhat technical commentary by screenwriter Venne, who was a big fan of Argento long before getting the job; a 13-minute general ?making of,? with ample comments from series creator Mick Garris, who oversells just how transgressive this episode is (and who seems foolish saying such things given the fate of the first season?s Miike episode); a 7-minute look at the Chinese seamstress?s effects-heavy demise; plus a few storyboards, gore-heavy still photos, a perfunctory Argento biography, and a DVD-ROM screenplay.