If you are new to the works of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, Phenomena (1985) is as good a place as any to start. It practically plays like a ‘greatest hits’ of all his virtues, and more than a few of his vices. And for the Argento veteran, it’s a gas for those very same reasons – by combining so many elements from his other films he’s created his most bizarre feature to date – no mean feat. When I need five alarm Dario, I throw on Phenomena.
Released in his homeland in January, Phenomena was picked up by New Line Cinema, chopped all to hell (27 minutes cut!), and released stateside in August under the new title Creepers. Did it do well? Of course not. Argento has always been a cult artist in North America; revered by the horror press and some fans at the time, the Cult of Dario has only grown with the rise of the home video market, offering easier access to his classic titles, the way they were meant to be seen – uncut. And this is a great example; do yourself a favor and stay clear of Creepers – especially if you think fully formed Argento is incoherent.
Once upon a time, Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly - Hulk) was sent away to a boarding school in Switzerland. Jennifer was very pretty, with long black hair. She shared a telepathic relationship with insects – flies, bees…well mostly flies and bees. Everyone at Jennifer’s school was scared because a very bad man in the countryside was killing innocent girls, wearing the kind of black gloves always used in giallo films. A kindly old entomologist with a dodgy Scottish accent named John McGregor (Donald Pleasence – Halloween) befriended Jennifer while trying to help the police catch the killer. He wasn’t much help, but he sure was good at exposition! Professor McGregor also had a service chimpanzee named Inga who was very helpful, especially with a straight razor.
One time Jennifer was sleepwalking and saw a girl get killed. She couldn’t remember anything, but the insects helped her find clues – way more than the police ever could! In fact, the insects were so helpful they led her right into the clutches of the killer. Jennifer had to fight really hard; she had to climb out of a maggot filled swimming pool and fend off a midget with a really bad skin condition, but with some help she defeated the killer and got the hell out of Switzerland. The End.
Okay, I’m being a bit of a cheeky monkey (oof), but it really was Argento’s intent to create a fairy tale; in the same way that Suspiria (1977) is bathed in that special Grimm sauce, Phenomena uses the supernatural (and the elemental) to weave a spell across the screen. And much like the aforementioned film, the effect is purely visual; there’s no lesson here for the kiddies to absorb, unless a million flies tearing away someone’s flesh is a moral for maintaining good hygiene. The timeless appeal of the Swiss Alps acts as a perfect backdrop for his twisted pop up book; except instead of the big bad wolf, you get a shrouded villain with a silver spear.
And this is where the film sets itself apart in his filmography; it mashes his two signature themes (giallo and supernatural) together into one glorious, pulpy mess. Are you hoping for a seamless melding of two very distinct sub-genres? Then this is not your film. But you will encounter brutal beheadings, followed by wind swept visages of the ethereal Connelly, followed by impromptu throat surgery, followed by swarms of insects blanketing the moon. Back and forth it goes, and what the hell it means, no one knows – nonsensical comes to mind. But that’s part of why Phenomena works; this is Argento free and unfettered by procedurals or covens – coherence is an afterthought when chaos has things covered.
Accompanying the chaos are of course, those visuals. Cinematographer Romano Albini (Inferno) adjusts the color dial again after Argento’s foray into clinical Kubrickian white for Tenebrae (1982); blues and impenetrable blacks emphasize the dangerous storybook atmosphere better than any dialogue ever could. Which is for the best – as a poet, Argento makes a hell of a painter. And as usual, following Argento and his roaming camera is a giddy treat, distracting the viewer from minor inconveniences like continuity and motivation. This isn’t the controlled artist of Deep Red (1975) putting in just what the film needs; this is a filmmaker putting in everything that he wants. Is it self-indulgent? Sure. But like it or not, this is the film he wanted to make.
It isn’t too often that performances are discussed in an Argento film; he trusts his English speaking actors to do the job required, with predictably uneven results. But Connelly is really quite good in only her second screen appearance; she was only 13 years old at the time of filming but shows a maturity well beyond her years, and better acting chops than the majority of the cast. She is the princess at the center of the fairy tale, and while there is no knight in shining armor (actually there sort of is, but you have to see for yourself), we do get the wizened wizard in the form of Pleasence’s professor who takes Jennifer under his wing. And as expected, he gives it everything he’s got (captain), gratuitous brogue and all. As a delightful bonus the film has Daria Nicolodi (Deep Red), Argento’s former muse, as headmistress Frau Bruckner, with, alas, nary a horse around to neigh at the sound of her name.
Phenomena shows a filmmaker being playful and flexing his, at that time, substantial muscles (and it should be noted, is his favorite of his films). It’s exhilarating, occasionally exasperating, and completely entertaining. What it isn’t, is boring. So gather round for Dario’s story time, and just keep this in mind: like any good children’s book, even if you don’t like the words, you can always enjoy the pictures.
Phenomena is available on Blu-ray in a Collector’s Edition Steelbook from Synapse Films.