Saturday, October 13, 2007
Movies: Show some skin.
Counting the original short story, Dario Argento's Pelts, one of his contributions to the on-going Showtime Masters of Horror series, is third version of the story I've come across. The second was the comic adaptation of the same that appear in the pages of Doomed (reviewed, precious reader of my heart, in this very blog).
The plot of the original involves a trapper who, while checking his fur traps, comes across several bizarre little animals, the likes of which he's never seen before. Being a trapper, he immediately takes them home and skins them. Problem is that contact with these things brings doom: usually you maul yourself in some horrific and bloody way, but, sometimes, if you get lucky, you might end up getting it in a struggle with somebody close to you and you'll both do each other in. Joy! We watch the furs make their way up the fur trade chain, killing folks all the way, until, finally the furs put paid to a fur coat maker and the woman he wishes was his girlie.
Argento follows this structure loosely – the movie revolves around a collection of cursed pelts – but he expands on nearly every aspect of the story, in most cases expanding on the original in some significant way. First, Argento makes the fur coat maker the central protagonist of the tale and reworks the coat-maker's doomed un-relationship with an ex-model lesbian stripper into the central conflict of the tale. This is a significant shift: in the original, the furrier is just another link in the chain of the curse. This is a smart move. The furrier (played to sleazy perfection by, of all people, Meat Loaf – who I notice is now going by a weird combo of his real name and the nickname his gym coach gave him: "Meat Loaf Aday") is a completely unsympathetic and revolting character, but the focus on him gives the story a dramatic unity. In Argento's version, we get a context for the whole story. The furrier is a small time player in the fashion biz: he gets the second tier materials, works with (this is suggested, but not ever stated) illegal labor, and has no real hope of being anything else than a bottom feeder in industry. To make things worse, he's obsessed with a stripper with lesbian tendencies who seems to enjoy taunting him. A more out of luck loser, it is hard to imagine. Argento spends quite a few feet establishing that this guy is looking for a break, and is undeserving of one, before he introduces the pelts.
The second major derivation has to do with the pelts themselves. Instead of making them the skins of some unknown animal, the pelts are raccoon pelts. The raccoon pelts are linked to some strange ruins and a country-witch character that serves to provide exposition. On one hand, this does explain why the pelts are cursed. Unfortunately, it also causes the careful watcher to ask just what ancient city of Native Americans is supposed to exist in Washington state. It's an explanation that opens up more answers that it settles. But this is a minor misstep.
Overall, Argento's gives the Masters of Horror a genuine shot in the arm. It is a violent, dark, and trashy bit of work, but it so vibrates with energy and life that it captures the attention of the viewer and holds it as surely as the steel jaws of a raccoon trap. Pelts is the blackest, most bloody installment of the Masters series I've seen, but it never seems pointless or pandering. I must admit that I'm mixed on Argento, but this one is a solid work – one that follows Jenifer, another win – and makes Argento's contributions to the series well worth the attention of any horror fan.