[This October is "Gialloween" on Daily Dead, as we celebrate the Halloween season by diving into the macabre mysteries, creepy kills, and eccentric characters found in some of our favorite giallo films! Keep checking back on Daily Dead this month for more retrospectives on classic, cult, and altogether unforgettable gialli, and visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Gialloween special features!]
It’s hard to hear the name Dario Argento without immediately thinking of giallo. Between 1971 and 1985, Argento wrote and directed half a dozen gialli that serve as quintessential examples of the subgenre, including Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Tenebrae, and, of course, Deep Red. In fact, Argento’s name and style are so intertwined with the giallo that some of his films seem to get lumped in even if they don’t quite fit the definition. Suspiria, for instance, certainly hints at giallo elements, particularly in the film’s early goings, but ultimately the witch narrative pulls the film away from the giallo’s tendency to steer clear of the full-on supernatural.
Argento’s 1985 insect-laden murder mystery Phenomena, then, represents perhaps his first true blend of of giallo and supernatural. The last of his films to get a significant U.S. release, it also followed an Italian horror tradition by reaching the States a year after its initial release with 20 minutes trimmed and a new moniker: Creepers.
The film starts as most of Argento’s gialli tend to, with a horrible murder. In this case, a young Danish tourist is left behind by her tour bus, and as she wanders into a nearby farmhouse looking for help, an unseen entity stalks, stabs, and decapitates her. Cut to eight months later, where young Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is the new girl at a high-end boarding school. She has trouble making friends at the school, partially due to her tendency to sleepwalk and the fact that tensions are high with a killer on the loose.
Then there’s also the small matter of Jennifer’s ability to telepathically connect with insects. This is where the film picks up some of that supernatural flavor, but the distinction between this and something like Suspiria is that the insect storyline has nothing to do with the murders. We’ll go down the bonkers rabbit hole of that mystery a little later, but as someone who will forever ride or die for Tina Shepard, you know I’m a sucker for movies that give our heroine a paranormal boost.
I also love that Jennifer’s telepathic link isn’t with something cuddly, like golden retrievers or panda bears. She’s perfectly comfortable having all manner of bees, flies, and even maggots crawling on her person, which Argento uses to play a bit with traditional views of good and evil. When Jennifer displays her powers with a swarm of flies in front of her teachers and fellow students, the headmistress theorizes there’s something diabolical about Jennifer’s powers, as she assumes they’ve got something to do with Beelzebub (lord of the flies).
The other big payoff for Jennifer’s camaraderie with the creepy crawlies is that it provides the catalyst for her relationship with Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) and his chimpanzee, Inga (Tanga, a very charming monkey who regrettably has no other credits to her name). McGregor serves as an effective bridge between the giallo and supernatural elements of the film, as his expertise with insects allows Jennifer to explore her powers while also providing some context for the murder mystery. He’s also a bit of a red herring, as his backstory has some connections to a possible victim (which in true giallo fashion doesn’t really pay off) and Pleasence’s abnormally subdued performance had me wondering if we weren’t being set up for a last-minute reveal of him as the big bad.
Now, I’m going to be honest with you (and spoiler alert for those who care): there was also a significant portion of the film where I thought Inga was the killer. Wait, wait, now hear me out. First of all, there is precedent for “it was the monkey all along,” as Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders at the Rue Morgue reveals an orangutan to be at the center of a pair of very grisly killings. Plus, I swear Argento was intentionally throwing out fake clues pointing at Inga. At the beginning of the film we get flashes of our killer tearing chains out of the wall of what appears to be some kind of holding cell, and whoever it is has enough brute force to yank metal studs out of plaster. Plus, the one giallo element noticeably absent are shots of a killer’s hands in black gloves. Could that be because a monkey would not wear said gloves?
Well... no. It turns out neither Inga or McGregor are the killer, which we find out when McGregor is killed and Inga is incapacitated during the incident. But I’d argue that the film’s actual resolution is even nuttier than my theory, as it turns out our killer is Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi), one of the staff at Jennifer’s boarding school whose name is close enough to Frau Blücher that I hear a horse whinny whenever it’s said out loud. Brückner stays in the periphery just enough to not seem like her reveal comes completely out of nowhere. Plus, in true giallo fashion, said reveal comes complete with a questionable backstory featuring a deformed (and therefore monstrous) son produced as a result of sexual assault. And if you’re still raising an eyebrow at my theory that Inga was the killer, I would like to point out that she returns at the very end of the movie to save Jennifer and avenge McGregor’s death with the business end of a straight razor. No way my theory is crazier than that.
While the film falls apart a bit narratively in the final act, I’d argue that most gialli do the same. And because Argento has thrown in these supernatural elements, I found myself more willing to just go along for the ride, similar to the go-for-broke sensibilities of a Lucio Fulci flick. Overall, Phenomena is one of Argento’s more manic entries, as on top of monkeys and bugs, he’s also giving us a movie that highlights Giorgio Armani as the costume designer and features a soundtrack ranging from his go-to band Goblin to metal bands including Motörhead and Iron Maiden. And while this makes for a film that bounces all over the place in terms of tone, it just barely manages to stay on the rails and prove that Argento had something new to offer to the giallo.
Keep an eye on our online hub throughout October for more of our Gialloween retrospectives!