Written by: Steven Weber (teleplay), Bruce Jones (short story)
Directed by: Dario Argento
Starring: Steven Weber, Laurie Brunetti and Carrie Fleming
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ď If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck with a meat cleaver."
Like the Masters of Horror episode that preceded it, Jenifer is helmed by a director whose best days have long sense passed in Dario Argento. While itís arguable that his work has never sunk to the subterranean levels of Tobe Hooperís work, itís been at couple of decades since he consistently churned out quality films. Jenifer doesnít do a whole lot to make you forget his more disappointing output, but I think you can at least make the case that itís the best work he did during the last decade. Small consolation, perhaps, but this is a gleefully little twisted tale that at least recalls the transgressive quality of his earlier oeuvre.
Argentoís protagonist here is a familiar one, as Steven Weber plays officer Frank Spivey; however, unlike Argentoís other cop figures, heís not tracing down a serial killer. Instead, he gets his man in the opening minutes when he shoots a raving lunatic to death before he hacks up a girl (Carrie Anne Fleming) with a meat cleaver. The girl ends up being the titular Jenifer, whose face is hideously deformed despite her very attractive body. From the moment Frank meets her, heís inexplicably drawn in by her seductive charms and is set down a path of destruction.
His destructive path is lined with disemboweled intestines, as Jenifer is harboring a ravenous mean streak beneath her seemingly harmless, mentally deficient woman-child exterior. As such, you can argue that the MVP of the film is the effects team headed by Nicotero and Berger, who craft some impressively gruesome effects to highlight the graphic nature of Frankís descent. Thereís an unexpected frankness to it that works on a raw, visceral level, particularly because most of it ends up being perpetrated in the middle of a quaint suburbia. It seems that whenever Frank leaves the house, heís almost always greeted by the latest disgusting surprise Jenifer has left him.
Admitteldy, a lot of this is cheap schlock, as Jenifer aims for the most obvious form of queasiness by putting everything and everyone in danger, including children and pets. Argento has wallowed in this stuff for years, with even his earliest work being marked by a faint sleaziness (that subsequent Italian schlock-masters amplified to absurd levels). However, there was always a sense of style and grace to Argentoís best work, whether it be the Technicolor dreaminess of Suspira or the bravura camerawork of Tenebrae. This is what I miss more than anything from his more recent work--itís almost as if he willingly abandoned his trademark flair and distinctiveness, a move thatís resulted in flat, generic gore-fests and dull police procedurals. Jenifer isnít much different in this respect--I like that the film is more measured and assured than it is frantic, but itís hard to find classic Argento in here.
If heís to be found, itís in the mix of the erotic and the grotesque, which are gruesomely fused in the title character. Outside of the gross imagery, sheís certainly the filmís most enduring and fascinating image, with her contorted facial features offsetting her otherwise appealing figure. With a giggly, childish demeanor, youíd feel compelled to call her impish if she didnít eventually have someoneís guts dangling from her mouth. Her background is purposely suppressed to keep her enigmatic--sheís simply this weird, deformed girl that wanders into Frankís life, only to tear it apart. Instead of being repulsed by her, he canít resist her sexual overtures that also create a disconnect with her childlike exterior. Sheís a walking contradiction through and through, both physically and morally--she looks ugly and her actions sometimes match it; however, thereís a weird sensuality to her too that makes it difficult for Frank to dispose of her.
Try as he might, he canít bring himself to refuse her, leading to one of the more bizarre relationships youíll ever see. Itís also the basis for Argentoís most memorable work in years--thereís something grand and silly about Jenifer, and it actually feels like Argento is having a good time with this instead of just going through the motions. With a more heightened sense of style and visual flair, it might have been something special, but, at this point, Iíll just settle for Argento not sucking up the joint. He doesnít here, so youíll want to check out Jenifer on DVD or via Netflix; either way, youíll get a fine presentation, but the disc is of course rounded out with a bevy of extras that include on set interviews with the cast and crew, a script-to-screen feature, behind-the-scenes looks, trailers, a still gallery, and an audio commentary with Weber. Argento hasnít really done much in the past fifteen years that deserves a spot on your shelf, but Jenifer just maybe eeks out a spot. Buy it!
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