In 1974, Bruce Jones wrote a nasty little story for Warren's Creepy Magazine (issue #63 to be exact) called Jenifer that was illustrated by the legendary Bernie Wrightson. It was a simple story, short and to the point, about a man rescued a physically deformed girl from a man he thought was a murderer only to become obsessed with her in his own twisted way. Fast forward to 2006 and Steven Weber of all people (the same Steven Weber who played Brian Hackett in Wings!) has adapted the story for Mick Garris' Masters Of Horror series being broadcast on Showtime, opting to play the male lead himself. The icing on this wonderfully twisted cake? None other than Dario Argento, the man behind Suspiria, Deep Red and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage was tapped to handle directorial duties. The results, in short, are just as good (and flat out weird) as you would expect them to be.
Frank Spivey (Weber) is a good cop with a cute wife and a typically troubled teenage son. While out on patrol one day with his partner he leaves the car and hears a woman screaming for her life. When he tracks down the source of the screaming he finds a man with a crazed look in his eyes holding a hatchet over a young woman, obviously intending to cut off her head. He warns the man to put down the weapon but to no avail and he's forced to kill him in the line of duty in order to save the girl's life.
It turns out that the girl is named Jenifer (Carrie Anne Fleming), but that's all anyone really knows. Something happened to Jenifer sometime in her past – while her body is picture perfect and fully developed, her face is disfigured so much that she almost looks alien. To complicate matters even more, her behavior is almost more animal than human. She can't talk, she simply grunts and squeals, but she has no problem showing her affection and she's obviously experienced in the more carnal side of life.
When Spivey finds out that Jenifer has been put up in a mental hospital he feels responsible to the extent that he goes and gets her and brings her home to stay with his family. His wife is understandably upset with this and once they find Jenifer has eaten the family cat, she takes their son and leaves Frank alone with her. What Frank soon finds out is that Jenifer might seem tragic and innocent on the outside despite her awkward appearance, but she knows what she likes and she takes what she wants, regardless of right or wrong.
Considering that the comic that the movie is based on is only a few pages long, it has to go without saying that Weber's screenplay would need to elaborate things a bit in order to stretch the premise out to an hour or so (this puppy runs fifty-eight minutes), and he has. We learn a bit about Frank at the police department, we see that his commanding officer makes him visit the psychiatric department after the shooting, we see him think of Jenifer while having very violent intercourse with his wife and we meet his family and even the girl who lives next door to him. There's more detail here than the source material its based on would allow for and while the original comic has a wonderful sense of mystery that is hampered by these expository details, it does flesh the story out nicely without giving us too much information.
While not nearly as hyper-stylized as some of his earlier work, Argento never the less manages to ensure that this is a slick and polished looking piece that is complimented quite nicely by Claudio Simonetti's score. Those familiar with the director's earlier efforts will appreciate a few colorful touches here and there (a dream sequence in which Spivey thinks of Jenifer as 'normal' comes to mind) while those put off by some of his wilder motifs can rest assured that this one never goes into style over substance territory. Argento is playing things fairly safe here but he still manages to put his mark all over the movie, which is as it should be.
Weber proves to be very good in the lead and while it might take a few minutes in order to disassociate him from his best known sit-com persona, it doesn't take long and he's both believable in the way he acts and in the way he looks. Complimenting him very nicely is Carrie Anne Fleming in the title role. While she has no dialogue, only primal animal noises, her physical performance in the piece is very good indeed and you're able to both pity and fear her – which is the whole point of the story in the first place.
The 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer presents the movie in its original aspect ratio and for the most part, the image looks very good and the picture is quite sharp throughout. There is some edge enhancement present in a few scenes as well as some shimmering and aliasing in spots but there's very little to complain about otherwise. Black levels are strong and deep, there are no issues at all with print damage, dirt or debris on the picture and there's a very pleasing level of both foreground and background detail present throughout the picture. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and the reds, particularly those used in the gore scenes, are well defined without bleeding through.
Anchor Bay presents Jenifer in your choice of a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track or a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track. Both mixes sound very good with plenty of lower end bass response and some very nice instances of channel separation throughout. Dialogue is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion. There were a few spots on the 5.1 mix that could have been a little more aggressive but otherwise things sound really good here especially during the last few minutes of the production. There are no alternate language tracks or subtitle options .
Steven Weber, who stars and who wrote the screenplay, is joined by producer Perry Martin for a reasonably interesting commentary track. A fair bit of focus is put on what it was like working with Argento as well as some of the issues that they had bringing the story to the small screen. Weber dominates the track though Martin manages to make his points when he needs to and he basically serves more as a moderator here than as a contributor. There's very little dead air and Weber has a keen wit and a good sense of humor which comes through in this talk. If you liked the movie, this commentary is well worth your time, even if a commentary with the director would have been preferable.
Continuing the tradition set by the earlier Masters Of Horror DVDs, next up is the Working With A Master featurette. Not quite as long as those that have come before it (this one clocks in at just over sixteen minutes in length), this is never the less an affectionate tribute to Dario from the people that he worked with on this project in addition to a look back at his career and the influence that some of his work has had throughout the years. It's a nice piece, even if it definitely could have been more in depth than it is. Interviewees for this segment include effects man Howard Berger, actors Steven Weber, Tony Musante, and Carrie Anne Fleming and regular musical collaborator Claudio Simonettti.
The best of the extra features on this disc is the fifteen minute featurette with Argento himself entitled So Hideous, My Love. Not only does Argento give us his take on the project and why he was drawn to it, but we also get to check out a few deleted clips in here as well. Argento is an interesting guy, and this interview serves as further proof of that.
Two on set interviews are also included, the first with Steven Weber who talks for just over eleven minutes about what it was like working with Dario Argento on this project as well as his thoughts on Fleming, and how he intended to bring Bruce Jone's comic script to life. The second interview is with the lovely Carrie Anne Fleming, seen here without her make up on, who talks about her role, the director, Weber, and some of the make up effects for ten minutes or so. A twelve minute Making Of Jenifer piece shows some on set footage and effects work but offers little insight into the production (the footage is very cool, however). More substantial is a featurette entitled The Make Up Of Jenifer in which Howard Berger explains to us how Fleming's make up was created and applied – those who dig on these types of things should enjoy this one as it's pretty informative and fairly in-depth and twenty minutes or so. The last, and longest, of the featurettes on this disc is the thirty-eight minute long Script To Scream documentary which is a general overview of what went into making the movie, who did what and how they did it, and how various people feel about the project now that it's finished. There's also a lot of rough footage in here and some behind the scenes footage and it gives us a good idea of how the project was seen to completion.
Rounding out the extra features on this release are trailers for the first batch of Masters Of Horror episodes, a still gallery, Dario Argento text biography, in DVD-Rom format, the original screenplay and a screensaver. An odd looking trading card featuring an illustrated picture of Argento's noggin is also included as is an insert with the chapter listing on it.
An interesting and well made departure for Argento, Jenifer is an excellent blend of blunt, horrific imagery, dark humor, and raw sexuality. The two lead performances are quite good and the story is both eerie and thought provoking. Anchor Bay's DVD once again looks and sounds very nice, and the extras are both plentiful and interesting. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.