One part giallo stalk-and-slash, one part dreamy, supernatural coming-of-age tale about a girl who can communicate with bugs, and 100% off-the-wall, batshit crazy, Phenomena is a moviegoing experience you aren't likely to forget.
Yet another weird offspring born from the demented mind of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, the man who brought the world such Eurocult classics as Suspiria, Deep Red, Inferno, Cat o' Nine Tails and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Phenomena bears many of the hallmarks of the typical Argento film: an innocent in over their heads, a psychotic murderer on the rampage, plenty of shots from the killer's POV, moments of serene beauty punctuated with startling, extreme violence - all set to a pulsating, nerve-shredding rock soundtrack. It has these things, but it also veers off into its own, oddball territory.
The movie sets its creeptastic mood from the start. On a remote country road somewhere in the mountainous foothills of Switzerland, a yellow bus pulls up at a lonely bus stop. A gaggle of tourists emerge from a nearby forest path and get on the bus, which then pulls off and drives away. Soon after, a lone 14 year-old Danish girl runs after the bus, but is left behind. She shivers in the cold wind blowing down from the hills and looks around her uncertainly. Spying a lone house nearby, she walks up to it and knocks on the door.
Big mistake. She's picked the worse possible house to go poking around in. Something peers at her from inside. We see something chained up inside, ripping itself free. The girl enters the house and is soon viciously attacked by its now-freed prisoner. It chases her outdoors and through a neighboring waterfall park, where it stabs her with a pair of scissors and then decapitates her, her head cascading down the waterfall to be washed out to the lake below.
Things flash forward eight months later, to the lab in the house of wheelchair-bound entymologist Dr. John McGregor (Donald Pleasence). He's using his expertise on insects and decomposition to assist the police in catching the same killer, who has not been idle since the opening murder. The killer is targeting schoolgirls around the area, and the detective on the case, Inspector Geiger (Patrick Buchau, later seen in TV's The Pretender), vows to catch him.
Next, we meet our young heroine, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), being taken to the Richard Wagner School for Girls by school manager Frau Bruckner. Right away we see Jennifer's special facility for handling insects: a bumblebee buzzes around the car but calmly alights on her palm. "Insects never hurt me," she intones calmly. "I love them."
The daughter of a famous actor, Jennifer immediately impresses her French roommate, Sophie, who has a crush on her dad, and clashes with the young, beautiful but icy cold headmistress. Jennifer learns of the killer stalking the area and no sooner does she fall asleep then she establishes some sort of psychic connection to the latest victim. Jennifer sleepwalks outside the school and comes across the unfortunate girl, just as she's stabbed through the back of the head in highly grisly fashion. Still sleepwalking, Jennifer runs away from the scene, eventually waking up in the woods near Dr. McGregor's house. His chimpanzee "nurse," Inga, takes her by the hand and leads her into the house to safety.
McGregor and Jennifer hit it off immediately, and find a shared affinity in their fascination with insects. In the coming days, Jennifer retreats from the callous pupils and hostile staff of the girls' school to frequently visit McGregor, eventually revealing to him her peculiar talents.
When her roommate Sophie is the next murder victim, Jennifer is enlisted by McGregor to use those skills to work with a carrion-seeking fly - a species named the "Great Sarcophagus" - to track down the location where the killer is hiding the bodies, with fateful results...
Phenomena straddles the two separate strands in the Argento filmography. It has many giallo elements (a murder investigation, a gloved killer preying on young women), coupled with supernatural overtones - in this case, unlike Suspiria, the powers are not on the side of evil, but belong to our heroine.
Per usual, the dialogue is frequently clunky, the acting (other than Connelly and, to a lesser extent, Pleasence) wooden and stiff, and the plot nonsensical. Fans of the Argento's work know that none of this really matters, as his particular skill set is on prominent display here. Argento's films have style to burn. He excels at visual flair, of presenting a series of meticulously-composed shots of simultaneous beauty and ugliness, married to a soundtrack that moves from slowly escalating, eerie suspense to a driving, pounding aural assault of jangly guitar rock. Argento movies follow their own kind of fairy tale, dream logic. It's best just to go with the flow of events and not concern yourself too much with whether they make a lick of any "real world" sense.
Phenomena is fun and lively enough for most of its length (though perhaps overlong at 110 minutes in its uncut form), but really kicks it up a notch in its absolutely nutso cuckoo, insane final 20 minutes. It's a crazy quilt, all-out gonzo horror movie bonanza, featuring, among many other scenarios, an attempted poisoning, crawling around narrow dirt underground tunnels, a fall into a slimy pit full of rotten corpses and maggot-ridden body parts, a confrontation with the killer on a rowboat in the middle of a lake, a massive swarm of flies eating the flesh off someone's face, a man breaking his own thumb to get free, a fiery explosion, a surprise decapitation, and a vengeful, razor-wielding chimp. My jaw dropped at the overdose of awesomeness that I had just witnessed.
Donald Pleasence for some reason attempts a (not bad) Scottish accent, and spends most of the movie staring at bugs and looking somber. Still, even a somnolent Pleasence acts circles around most of the cast. Jennifer Connelly, only 14 years old at the time of filming, is a bit raw around the edges but gives a pretty impressive, sensitive performance overall, in only her second feature film (after Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America). Argento shows surprising (and rather uncharacteristic) restraint in how he presents the budding sexuality of Ms. Connelly. The camera lingers on her beauty but in a mostly chaste manner that never quite crosses the line into exploitation territory. Instead, he saves the queasiness for his brutal murder sequences, typically well-staged but featuring much younger victims than usual (most in the 14 to 16 age bracket), which might come as a bit of a shock to some.
Though it shares some obvious parallels with the director's earlier masterpiece, Suspiria - young American girl goes to sinister boarding school in Europe and encounters murder and evildoing, winning the day through her own innocent powers - Phenomena is very much its own odd entity, much stranger and random.
All the instrumental music, by Goblin and others, works a treat (though I found some of the vocal rock tracks, by Iron Maiden and Motorhead, less effective). While not as terrifying as Goblin's landmark score for Suspiria, the music here is still creepy and helps tremendously in creating a freaky, unsettling mood.
Worth seeing for its ending alone, Phenomena overcomes its lapses of logic and goofy, tin-earred dialogue to create a unique horror movie experience, yet another of Argento's triumphs of mood and atmosphere over substance.
This is my contribution to the Italian Horror Movie Blogathon, an annual event hosted by Kevin at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Head over there to check out more wild Italian horror treats covered by other bloggers.
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