While Dario Argento is famed for his seventies and eighties output, general consensus is that he has been a fading star in the U.S. for the better part of two decades now. The Masters of Horror cable television series, of which he directed two episodes (this film plus Jenifer the next year) has helped him revive his career here in America (his films have continued to be very popular in his home country of Italy going on 40 years now).
Seventies rock star Meat Loaf Aday stars as the rough and seedy Jake Feldman, a furrier whose fur coat-making business is on the brink of failure. Jake is not an easy man to work for. He is mean, abusive, and crooked. He wants only two things: for his business to make him rich, and Shanna, the gorgeous African-American stripper he is obsessed with. When Jake isn’t berating his employees or pushing his assistant around, he can be found at the strip club getting a private lap dance from Shanna and trying to weasel his way into her life. For Shanna’s part, Jake is nothing but a sleazeball, another one in a long line of perverts who see her as nothing but an object; besides, Shanna is a lesbian, so Jake holds no interest for her at all.
One night Jake is interrupted from his lusting over Shanna by Pa Jameson (genre stalwart John Saxon). Jameson is something of a braggart and usually sells Jake inferior pelts, which is just about all Jake can afford anyway. Jameson claims he has the most beautiful raccoon pelts Jake will ever see. Curious, Jake and his lackey go to Jameson’s house only to find Jameson and his son dead. Not caring about the mysterious deaths, Jake only has dollar signs in his eyes. He takes the pelts, not even bothering to contact the authorities about the corpses in the house. But soon, other mysterious deaths occur, such as the seamstress who sews her eyes, nose and mouth shut late one night while working on the coat alone. She is found dead the next morning, having smothered to death. Jake’s reaction: "Call the police, but keep it quiet. We don’t need the publicity!"
Jake realizes that if he can get ahold of a breeding pair of these wondrous animals, all his dreams will come true: fame; riches; Shanna. He goes back to Jameson’s house and manages to find a map to the hunting grounds. There he meets Mother Mater (a nod to Argento’s famous "Three Mothers" films). The old woman tells Jake that she built walls around her land and doesn’t allow hunting not to protect the animals from people, but to protect people from the animals. These raccoons are special. They are magical…and very dangerous. Never mind. Jake had more important things to do. He rushes to Shanna’s apartment. Shanna reluctantly lets him in, her distant dreams of supermodel stardom a little bit closer when she sees the beautiful coat. She allows Jake to have her way with her in order to convince him she should wear the coat in upcoming international fashion show she hopes will break her talent. Unfortunately, the coat–which has cursed everyone who has come in contact with it–might just take those dreams, along with the lives of Jake and Shanna.
Pelts is a terrific and terrifically gory little morality play. Everyone in this story wants something. Jameson wants money for the pelts; Jake wants sex and money; and Shanna wants fame and glory. But what is the price of success, and what are the characters willing to do for it? Jameson trespasses on the land that is home to the magic animals in order to make a little extra money. Jake is willing to overlook possible foul play and the safety of his employees to become successful. And Shanna is willing to go against her very nature as a sexual being by allowing herself to be violated by someone she doesn’t care about or is even remotely interested in. Fame, greed, lust: all are perverted and each pervert the characters of this film.
Argento, who has suffered from a loss of popularity in the U.S. over the last 12 years or so, shows that even in his sixties, he can still create a masterpiece of the macabre. In some scenes, the lighting is vintage Argento, while the bright colors of the strip club are also classic Argento. But the highlights of the film are the extremely gory setpieces. Jameson gets his head bashed in with a baseball bat by his son, just as he instructed his son to do to the trapped raccoons. Under the spell of the dead animals, Jameson’s son then puts his head into a bear trap which rips his face off amidst huge sprays of blood. Later on, the seamstress sews her eyes, nose and mouth up is loving close-up, just as she sews the pelts together to fashion the coat. Jake himself, after presenting the coat to Shanna and having sex with her, comes under the influence of the pelts and literally skins himself alive, presenting Shanna with a vest of human skin: "Shanna, I made this for you." He slices around his waist, around his neck and shoulders, and literally pulls his skin off over his head. Shanna is horrified. She runs to the elevator only to have her arm trapped in the door much like the raccoons trapped on Mother Mater’s land. In the final scene, much like animals snared in traps that chew their own legs off, Shanna’s hand is cut off by the elevator door and she is literally drowned in an arterial spray the likes of which haven’t been seen since Argento’s own Tenebrae (1982).
In many ways, Argento has gone back to his roots with Pelts. We have a supernatural horror story similar to his classics like Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). This is Argento’s goriest outing in many, many years, much like the aforementioned films Suspiria, Tenebrae, and his classic Deep Red (1975). It is also sexy and erotic, something Argento has really only begun to explore in recent years. Ellen Ewusie as Shanna is drop-dead gorgeous and extremely sexy. The acting is excellent, as you would expect with veterans such as John Saxon and Meat Loaf, and the music, created by the famous Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame, is also terrific. Simonetti, famous for creating many child-like melodies for Argento’s films, here comes up with yet another haunting, music-box motif that increases the eerie atmosphere of the film. Bonus for American viewers is the fact that the plot is very linear and easy to follow, which is not always the case in Argento’s films.
Pelts is an excellent short feature (around 60 minutes in length) that has excellent production value, great acting, and bloody special effects. I’m glad to see Dario Argento is still capable of creating such visceral horror.