"You stink like rotting flesh, fur trader."
Furrier Jake Feldman (Meat Loaf Aday) wants good furs, but not to save his struggling business. No, Jake wants good quality furs so he can be with Shanna (Ellen Ewusie), a stripper that he has fallen in lust with.
When a drunken poacher named Jeb Jameson (John Saxon) contacts Jake about some truly remarkable looking raccoon pelts, it seems that the desperate man just might have a real chance to gain access to the only part of Shanna that he has been unable to touch.
But there is a painful catch. The raccoon pelts come from within a circle of ruins in Mother Mayter's woods. Woods where trespassing and hunting are forbidden, and Jameson's killing and skinning of the raccoons unleashes a blood curse upon any who seek to profit from the purloined pelts...
I think Pelts just might be my favorite episode of Masters of Horror. I am not saying that it is the best episode, far from it. At this particular moment, my choices for the best Masters of Horror episodes are Larry Cohen's Pick Me Up, from season one, and John Landis's Family, from season two. Opinions are sure to vary about my two choices, but I think at least one of them, Family, is an inarguable classic of the genre.
And then there is Pelts, which is just a wet and nasty piece of work. One that can be read two ways.
The most obvious, and easier, reading of the episode would be as an indictment of the fur industry (i.e. "Fur is Murder"). The cursed (or blessed, depending on how you view the events and the characters in the story) pelts "seduce" those that seek to profit from them. Once seduced, said victim commits a horrible, and fatal, self-mutilation, using a method from the fur trade. The hunter smashes his skull inside of a trap, a seamstress sews her nose and mouth shut, and so on and so forth. Rough justice meted out in the classic style of EC horror comics.
While such an obvious sociopolitical reading could be expected from someone like George Romero, it really isn't Dario Argento's narrative style. He doesn't like to make commentaries, he just wants to create lush and disturbing images.
Which is what brings me to the second, less obvious way to read Pelts, as a study of the corrosive effects of a singular obsession. The blinding nature of obsession is the predominant theme in Argento's work. In each of his films there is a character that becomes fascinated with a particular object or image or sound and what it means. This obsession grows as the story progresses and the mystery deepens, making it difficult for the creator (the novelists in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Tenebre, the crossword puzzle maker in The Cat O' Nine Tails, etc.) to create anything until the puzzle of the obsession (the mystery) is solved.
There is no mystery in Pelts, only an obsession. Jake wants Shanna so badly he is willing to destroy both his career and himself in order to have her. His obsessive need to be with Shanna is so tightly focused that Jake has to be constantly reminded by a friend and co-worker (Link Baker) to focus on the important needs of their business. Jake, a seasoned fur trader that has been in the business for twenty or so years, has to be reminded that a breeding pair of raccoons will be necessary if they wish to truly capitalize on the glorious pelts. One great coat is not enough to save a struggling business, but it is more than enough for Jake to finally get Shanna.
The acting in Pelts is pretty broad, but that is just part of Argento's style. Italian films are shot without sound and, far more often than not, a different actor is called in to record the dialogue. So broad and/or exaggerated performances are the norm. Also broad and exaggerated are the color schemes and blocking. Things for which Argento is both famous and well admired. Pelts is an exceptionally colorful production, almost as colorful as Argento's two most famous technicolor dreamscapes, Suspiria and Inferno. It is soaked in rich, deep reds and soft, cool blues. Another interesting touch is the use of spotlights in the production. Take a moment to note how many times people or objects are shown in the center of a pool of light. It gives a great many scenes an almost operatic feel to the over the top excesses.
And believe me when I write that Pelts is over the top in its excess. This is not only one of the bloodiest episodes in the Masters of Horror series, it is also one of the bloodiest, if not the flat out goriest, films in Argento's colorful career. Some of the stuff is hard to watch, but that is what makes it such a wonderful little horror tale. No matter how many times I watch it, Pelts remains a genuinely horrifying viewing experience. One that always gets me writhing in my chair and covering my eyes.
That is why it will always be one of my favorite episodes.