When Showtime announced their lineup for their Masters of Horror anthology series back in 2005, one thing became clear pretty quickly: the show was going to focus almost entirely on American masters of horror. With the exception of Takashi Miike’s “Imprint” in season 1 and Norio Tsuruta’s “Dream Cruise” in season 2 (for what it’s worth, both were the last episodes of their respective seasons—or, at least, they would have been had Showtime actually aired “Imprint”), the only episodes directed by a non-American are the ones directed by the great Dario Argento, the Crown Prince of Italian horror. And for those of you keeping score of these Italian horror designations, Mario Bava is the Godfather, Lucio Fulci the Maestro, Bruno Mattei the Fool. Everyone has their role to play.
Season 1, Episode 4: “Jenifer”
Director: Dario Argento
Original Air Date: November 18th, 2005
Argento’s first Masters of Horror offering, called simply “Jenifer,” is another highlight of the series and arguably the best thing the director has made since Trauma in 1993. Based on a 1973 comic book short story by Bruce Jones (and illustrated by the late, great Bernie Wrightson), Jenifer is ghoulish and perverse in a way that would have been right at home in the hands of fellow Master of Horror Stuart Gordon, but feels a bit different for an Argento film in terms of its near singular focus on sexuality. Yes, his films have had a focus on sex before, but not like this.
Steven Weber—who, impressively, also adapted Jones’ comic book into the episode’s screenplay—stars as Frank, who, as the story opens, is on a stakeout when he sees a man about to murder a defenseless woman. Frank shoots the man, who mutters only the word “Jenifer” before he dies. This Jenifer (Carrie Anne Fleming) is horribly disfigured and can’t speak, seeming practically feral. He brings her to the hospital and returns home to his wife and son, unable to stop himself from having sexual thoughts about Jenifer. Eventually, he brings her back to his house to give her a place to stay, giving in to temptation and beginning a sexual relationship with Jenifer. As his life continues to disintegrate, Frank is unable to break the hold Jenifer has over him… nor is he able to see just how dangerous and deadly she may be.
More darkly comic than Argento’s work typically is, “Jenifer” is full of gallows humor of the goriest variety. There is something inherently funny in the sight of Jenifer tearing apart and eating animals in gross, graphic detail and the other characters reacting with shock the way one might if a dog started peeing on the carpet: you don’t want it to happen, but at the same time you’re not completely surprised because you brought an animal into the house. Fleming’s portrayal of the title character goes a long way towards selling the material as funny, too; she’s so sincere (and often heartbreaking) in her actions and reactions that we can’t help but laugh at the circumstances. She’s only acting according to her nature. I mean, we knew she was a scorpion, right?
Therein lies the most compelling and potentially troubling aspect of “Jenifer.” This is a story like, say, Lucky McKee’s The Woman, about a feral woman that a man attempts to domesticate as part of his self-entitled power trip. This is a story about men who are powerless to control themselves around Jenifer, which on the one hand could be seen as a real indictment of male sexual desire. Jennifer is horrifying to look at, can’t speak or communicate, but has a beautiful body and appears naked much of the time, which is apparently more than enough for every man to want to have sex with her. On the other hand, it is suggested that Jenifer’s hold over Frank (and, by extension, other men as well) is somewhat supernatural in nature, which lets them off the hook for their terrible behavior. It puts the onus on Jenifer as a kind of succubus, trapping men under her spell and using them up until they’re dead. This reading robs “Jenifer” of most of its power as any kind of political piece, but I suspect the true messaging of the episode lies confused somewhere in the middle. Then again, confused gender politics are a common occurrence across Argento’s work, whose gialli of the 1970s often focused on cross-dressing or trans characters as central to the movies’ murders either directly (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) or indirectly (Tenebrae). We shouldn’t be surprised to see them surface again in “Jenifer.” We knew he was a scorpion.
The other signifiers of “Jenifer” as an Argento film are much more enjoyable, whether it’s the “You have been watching…” credit that appears at the end or the excellent score by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin, a frequent collaborator of Argento. Simonetti’s music for “Jenifer” may be the best across all of the Masters of Horror episodes, which often feature scores that feel somewhat generic and, for lack of a better way of putting it, made for TV. The gleeful amount of gore on display certainly recalls the traditions of Italian horror, too, with lots of gooey gut munching courtesy of KNB EFX Group, leading to one of only two instances in which Showtime requested cuts to an episode of the series (the other being Takashi Miike’s “Imprint,” which the cable channel eventually opted not to even air).
While star Steven Weber’s genre credits are limited (perhaps most famously to taking over the role of Jack Torrance in the TV miniseries adaptation of The Shining, directed by Mick Garris, creator and producer of Masters of Horror), it’s fun to see him acquit himself so well within this space, especially knowing that he penned the screenplay and clearly has affection for the material. The real MVP of “Jenifer,” however, is Carrie Fleming as the title character. It’s an overused cliché to call an actor’s performance brave—the sort of thing most critics reserve for when Jennifer Aniston appears in a movie without makeup—but there’s just no other way to describe what Fleming does here. From lack of wardrobe to her lack of dialogue to her monstrous facial prosthetics, Fleming has to totally lay herself bare (literally), while simultaneously being robbed of many of her most valuable tools as an actor. That she manages to create such a powerful character is a testament to her fearlessness. It’s exciting to watch an actor working without a net like this.
Only four episodes into this Masters of Horror rewatch and there hasn’t been a dud yet, with Argento’s “Jenifer” ranking right alongside Don Coscarelli’s “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” as the series’ best offerings thus far. Though not as stylistically formal as Argento is known for being, it’s distinctive enough in a number of ways to both stand apart from other episodes in the series and function as its own really good 60-minute movie. It’s also the most transgressive entry in Masters of Horror to this point, reminding us horror fans that more than 30 years after directing his first feature, Dario Argento still loves to provoke his audience. Good horror is often good because it pushes buttons. “Jenifer” pushes buttons.
“Jenifer” Score: 4/5
Up next: Series creator Mick Garris adapts his own short story and directs his first episode. Get ready for “Chocolate”!
Editor's Note: To read all installments of this series, check out our Masters of Horror Rewatch hub!