In 2005, Showtime greenlit a horror anthology series called Masters of Horror. Each episode was a one hour horror film directed by a famous or respected director in the genre. The only limitation put on the show was the equal budget set aside for each episode. Nothing else was off limits and some directors clearly set out to push that boundary.
Jenifer is one of the more graphic and disturbing episodes of the entire series. The titular character is a woman rescued from being murdered in the opening scene. Once Detective Frank Spivey kills her attacker, he discovers that Jenifer is physically deformed and incapable of speech. He refuses to let her be housed in a psychiatric hospital and brings her home instead. Frank’s family is instantly pushed away by Jenifer, who becomes incredibly aggressive when anything stands in the way of what she wants. Any effort Frank makes to get rid of Jenifer fails. She may not be able to speak, but she can clearly communicate what she wants through her black eyes and violent temperament.
Jenifer is directed by Dario Argento, the master of gialli horror. Giallo films are Italian crime thriller films. They tend to be highly stylized and incredibly violent. Argento took it a step further, borrowing from the American horror film to introduce bizarre supernatural elements into his stories, like the witches of The Three Mothers trilogy (Supiria, Inferno, The Mother of Tears) or an almost-psychic ability to identify clues in a crime (like Phenomena and Deep Red). Argento loves a bombastic synthesized score that doesn’t even sound like real instruments. He also plays not just with light and shadow but the mental reaction to color. A peaceful scene can be cast in a deep red haze, while a brutal murder sequence might be shot in shades of lavender or peach. He establishes his color palette in the opening scene of his films and then constantly redirects the eye to new sensations with unexpected pops of color.
There are pops of color in the set design of Jenifer—green tiles in the mental hospital shower with blue doors and a red wall in the distance, orange walls and yellow curtains in the house, a bedroom in various tones of pink—but the light itself will only shift to slightly yellow or slightly green. It’s Argento’s modern turn to more naturalistic looks for his purer gialli (not horror) films in recent years.
Argento isn’t hiding behind the safety net of bright colors anymore. If his vision requires violence, you’re going to see the violence. If he wants you to gaze into the eyes of his monster figure, nothing will obscure your view. The safety of the fantastic colors can only truly exist in a dream and dreams don’t last long in the world of Argento’s cinema.
However, without the colors to distract the eye, the true nature of Argento’s vision of the world is clear. The colors masked the underlying cruelty in his work. I find his films from The Stendhal Syndrome until now much harder to watch. They’re as violent as they ever were, but the natural lighting makes the violence, typically committed against women and vulnerable people in society, the source of style and spectacle. In Jenifer, we’re left with a story about an abused and disfigured woman whose appearance causes physical revulsion and terror in the eyes of everyone she meets.
The character of Jenifer is driven by desire. She cannot speak. Her solid black eyes show no sign of understanding. She is presented as little more than an animal, only interested in physical contact and intimacy. She’s willing to attack anything that gets in the way of her desires. Jenifer is a victim in her own story, but a villain by default to the outside world. It’s simply tragic.
There’s a cruelty to Argento’s work that can boil down to the human experience of pain. The physical pain reaction to violence—to the victim or the people around them—begins to crack open the shells of polite society. This pushes people to actually express their true feelings: their inner pain, suffering, and fear. Once those shells are destroyed, there’s no holding back secrets, lies, or dreams in society.
The third act of Jenifer is the most successful. This is where Argento and writer/star Steven Weber add new elements in the story. They don’t abandon the 10 page horror comic by Bruce Jones and Berni Wrightson; they take it further. The story shifts focus from desire to pain and that is something Argento knows how to show onscreen. It opens up the world of Jenifer in unexpected ways and guides you to the slim possibility of a happily ever after like a carrot on a stick.
As strange and uneven as Jenifer can feel at times, it does succeed as a horror film. It’s scary. It’s disturbing. My only disappointment is imagining how the middle of the film could have popped onscreen if Argento dipped into saturated gels of yellows, reds, and greens that defined his greatest contributions to horror. Jenifer is true to his current style and features a level of focus few other directors dare to commit to.
content warning: gore, nudity, violence against women, violence against children, violence against animals, sexual content
Next up: S1E05: Chocolate, directed by Mick Garris.