Phenomena is often regarded as a turning point in the career of Italian thriller director Dario Argento. Unfortunately for him, the direction it is most often cited as turning is down. After Phenomena, the influential director had one more good film in him – the mean-spirited and sadistic Opera — and then it was all downhill from there. In many ways, Argento’s career seemed to reflect that of another highly creative, important director: Tsui Hark. Both men revolutionized film making in their respective countries and inspired (and continue to inspire) countless other writers and directors. Both men brought a highly stylized vision to the screen. And both men have spent the better portion of the last decade trying to live up to their own reputations.
Like Hark, at least when Argento fails he usually fails in an interesting if exceedingly painful fashion. Trauma and Stendahl Syndrome are both wildly uneven works, but each film has moments of brilliance and macabre beauty where you can see the Argento of old shining through. Even if those films are disappointing, they’re still worth taking a look at. Dario’s Phantom of the Opera is such a deliriously bad mess that it becomes entertaining for all the wrong reasons. There was a lot of rough going after that one, though, movies that tested the limits of my dedication to the gnomish director and had me shaking my fist at the screen. The last film of his I saw, Giallo, was not quite a return to form, but it was passable thanks in large part to a strong leading man in Adrien Brody. Unfortunately, his next film, a 3D take on Dracula, looks like it might wind up being Argento’s worst film to date, and that’s quite a scary notion considering the quality of Mother of Tears.
Phenomena gets a bad rap for a lot of reasons, but much of it is lingering hostility based not on Phenomena itself, but on its drastically truncated American release, which was retitled Creepers. The negative reaction to that little experiment continues to color people’s perception of Phenomena, and those opinions are sometimes perpetuated by critics (and fans) too lazy to revisit the original, uncut film and instead rely on past critics who bashed Creepers. They figure it’s more or less the same movie, so the same criticisms will apply. In some cases, that might be true, but it’s hardly in the spirit of giving Phenomena a fair shake as a stand-alone work. Certainly the film is not immune to criticism, nor is everyone who reacts negatively to the film merely mimicking those who came before them. There are plenty of things that can be legitimately dissected even in the uncut version of Phenomena, especially if the viewer is not predisposed toward understanding — or at least excusing and tolerating — some of the peculiarities of Italian horror films in general and Dario Argento in particular.
Like most people in the United States, my initial exposure to Phenomena was through Creepers, which was one of a dozen or so foreign titles stocked in the local video store I frequented with horror film cohorts Dave and Rob back in the day. The place was surprisingly well stocked for a mom and pop video store in tiny LaGrange, Kentucky circa 1987, but mom and pop shops always seem more open to weird movies, or at least more ignorant of how offensive the contents might prove. As rabid horror fans with a very limited menu from which to chose, we devoured every title we could get our hands on no matter how abysmal it may have been. Zero Boys? Okay, why not? The Hills Have Eyes II? Yeah, that works. Even at a relatively young age, though, we learned to treasure films from Italy. They were special. They offered a little something extra that was lacking in many of the contemporary films from America, most of which were simply operating on the Friday the 13th model. The Italian films had a certain exotic appeal, a curious flash, style, and willingness to push the boundaries even in a genre of film where the boundaries were often pretty liberal.
Okay, so mostly it was the gore and sex. What do you want? We were fourteen, fifteen years old and not exactly the most sophisticated viewers in the world. Hell, we couldn’t afford to be sophisticated or picky about what we watched, because there just wasn’t that much around. Even if we’d had the intellectual development needed to be discerning viewers, you can’t do much when all you have to chose from is Shriek of the Mutilated and Ghoulies. Compared to those, even the most idiotic Italian films were godsends, if for no other reason than they took things to such extremes and did it with gusto. No one is going to call Demons a work of art, but at least it tried to entertain you and did something a little different than the usual “killer in the woods” routine. When we found and watched a copy of Suspiria for the first time in high school, it was a banner moment for me and my taste in films. I’d never seen anything quite like it; never even knew that a horror film could be so sumptuous, surreal, and otherworldly. Parts of it didn’t make any sense to me, but I was willing to roll with the hallucination simply because it was such a wild, unique trip. It was my first brush with Dario Argento. Creepers was my second.
As a youngun, I thought Creepers was all right. It wasn’t the masterpiece I expected after seeing Suspiria, but it wasn’t bad, especially since we watched it on the same night we watched Screamers — the movie that promises people turned inside out and then delivers naught but tedium and yawns (the Peter Weller movie by the same name is much better). It also didn’t hurt that I had a crush on Jennifer Connelly (and I say “had” as if I still don’t have it). I didn’t see what was so special about the movie though. Of course, I didn’t know how badly it had been edited at the time. Creepers jettisons over twenty minutes of material, shearing down the running time from 110 minutes to an anemic 82. Some of the gore was trimmed, as it always seems to be, and a lot of plot and character interaction. Even in its uncut form, there’s no denying that Argento’s film was not entirely logical. Missing almost half an hour, it becomes nigh incomprehensible. Certain aspects of the plot, including the rather crucial revelation about the killer, are altered as well by the edits. For me, it was pretty much an “in one ear and out the other” affair as we moved on to the more visceral and less ambitious Zombie.
Years later and more familiar with the back catalog of Argento and other Italian genre directors, I decided it would be worth my time to track down an uncut copy of Phenomena and refamiliarize myself with the film, do the proverbial “getting to know it again for the first time.” This was in the days before companies like Anchor Bay made it possible to just waltz on down to any store and pick up a widescreen, uncut copy of such a film, and well before Netflix would just steal by in the night and leave a DVD in your shoes for you to discover the next morning when you woke up early to see papa off to his job in the peat bogs (that’s how Netflix works, right?). I had to engage in fairly complex video trading gymnastics with a guy who kept insisting on telling me about all the Japanese rape porn he could send me. Man, I don’t want to watch that crap! I just want to see something normal, like Jennifer Connelly psychically commanding an army of grave flies, or a razor-wielding chimp. After finally convincing this less than savory fellow that I didn’t need any rape movies, I managed to complete the trade and get myself a really horrid looking God-knows-what-generation dupe of the uncut film.
I was in college at this time, and though I was expanding my horizons, I was still pretty naive about a lot of particulars and not well-versed enough in Italian horror films to keep my opinion completely uncolored by the flood of negative commentary regarding the film. Once again, I watched it and dismissed it. It was kind of goofy. In parts, the plot was outlandish to the point of absurdity. It just didn’t strike me as a very good movie, and I was comfortable agreeing with those who counted the movie as the beginning of the end for Dario Argento. A lot of this judgement, I acknowledged to myself while staring in a mirror and giggling, probably had moe to do with the wretched quality of my copy than with the film itself, but short of flying to Italy how was I ever going to see the thing in any decent shape?
Once again, years passed. Things changed. Phenomena was released on DVD, and all of a sudden I really wanted to see it again. Why? I mean, I didn’t like the movie, right? So why had it become so captivating? Why did pieces of it stick so firmly in my mind and work so diligently on my desires? I suspected that my conscience had missed something in the movie that my sub-conscience had picked up and filed away for such a time as I was ready to understand it. So it was late one night that I sat down for my third look at Phenomena — the look that would answer all my questions about the film. It was on this third viewing that I realized I’d fallen in love with the movie.
Phenomena finds Argento straddling two worlds, with one foot firmly planted in the more-or-less logical giallo films like Deep Red and the other kicking around in the free-form phantasmagoria of supernatural fantasies like Suspiria. There is a logic to the film, but it becomes warped as Argento revels in the Italian horror film’s philosophy that a horror film should be approached less like waking life and more like a nightmare. It is this philosophy that confounds so many people since it allows the director to meander between comprehensibility and incomprehensibility without distinguishing between the two. It also affords fans of the films a rather sturdy aegis, as damn near any stupid idea can be defended with the simple statement, “You don’t get it. It isn’t supposed to make sense.” Well, sometimes even things that aren’t supposed to make sense can still stink, but that’s neither here nor there.
A young and somewhat awkward Jennifer Connelly stars as Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of an American movie star who has shipped his daughter off to a boarding school in Zurich. In a rotten bit of parenting, the father has neglected to research the area, lest he would have discovered that a serial killer has been stalking the countryside and preying on girls his daughter’s age, including it seems at least one student at the school. I know parents can’t be perfect, but sending your daughter to a school besieged by a serial killer just seems to be a bad idea. Oh well, you know how those movie stars can be.
What really sets Jennifer apart from the other students is her curious ability to communicate, and in some cases even summon and control, insects. I’m guessing that the average bug rarely has anything interesting on its pinpoint-sized mind. You know, just stuff about “I gotta lift this leaf” or “Mmm, pollen.” Even if the conversation is lacking, being able to control the bugs is a pretty good power to have, unless you’re the kind of person who gets creeped out by bugs. In that case, you’re probably not going to appreciate beetles dropping by all the time and asking if they can roll some dung for you or something. On the other hand, you could always just command them to go away from you and bother someone else, so I guess it all works out.
I’ve always thought horror films about bugs were a bit of a cheat. I mean, it’s easy to creep people out with bugs because people are already afraid of them. You don’t have to work very hard to make someone think a bug is icky. If a giant cockroach eats someone, the fact that it is eating someone is a distant second on the shock-o-meter than the simple fact that it’s a big cockroach. However weird Phenomena and Creepers may have been, I was always happy that Argento never took the cheap way out. The bugs are around, and sure he trots out the maggots, but for the most part their application in the film is fairly subdued. The fact that they more or less play the role of heroes rather than villains makes Phenomena unique among “bug attack” movies. I suppose if his film career finally falls apart entirely, Argento can always fall back on writing children’s novels like Giovanni The Brave Little Corpse Fly.
Jennifer’s quirks don’t end with insect telekinesis, however. She’s also a somnambulist prone to taking long and dangerous walks in her sleep. On One such walk she witnesses a murder then, even more horrifying, gets picked up by a couple of sleazy German guys in a sports car. When she does not share their love of Kraftwerk, they dump her down a hill where she finally wakes up and meets kindly wheelchair-bound entomologist Professor John McGregor, played with class by horror film mainstay Donald Pleasance. McGregor is accompanied by an ultra-intelligent chimp who helps him around. By this point, the chimp isn’t even going to phase you. Of course there is a super-chimp, you will say to yourself, and just smile. As more girls begin to disappear, McGregor and Jennifer hatch a wild scheme in which she will team up with a Great Sarcophagus Fly (they only feed on dead bodies) to track down the killer. Complicating matters is the fact that Jennifer’s sleepwalking and general weirdness has put her at odds with the rest of the school’s students, who constantly mock her while the head mistress demands the poor girl be subjected to a variety of pointless brain scans and medical tests.
If hyper-intelligent chimps, detective flies, mind-melding with a maggot, sleepwalking, decapitations, and blasts of heavy metal at completely inappropriate moments don’t mark this film as a bizarre one, that’s because you’ve yet to get to the final act. That’s where things really go off the deep end. For me at least, there is something spellbinding about Phenomena. Argento’s stylistic approach to the direction keeps the film fascinating to look at from beginning to end. His use of color, so prominent in Suspiria and Inferno, is more subdued here but no less effective. Cinematographer Romano Albani paints a sumptuous and terrifying picture with every movie of the camera. Fans of Lucio Fulci (and yep, I am one) like to celebrate that director’s ability to paint an eerie cinematic picture, but Alabni (who also worked for Argento on the beautiful Inferno) really sets the bar high with this one. The use of simple effects really give the film power as well and keeps things focused on the plot. The opening sequence in which a young girl (Dario’s daughter, Fiore – the first but not last time he menaces one of his daughters on screen) is left behind by a tour bus and wanders through windswept, lush green hills until finally coming to the home of the killer, is an incredible sequence that draws a great deal of atmosphere and creepiness from the simplest of things. Like one of those old fairy tales that turns everything sinister and macabre, the viewer knows that these idyllic grassy hills are a lie. Even though we’ve not been introduced to the plot yet, we know there is a killer hiding somewhere amongst the beauty.
Another of Phenomena’s best moments comes when Jennifer finally has enough of the taunting of her classmates, who are making fun of her after they find a letter in which she discusses her ability to control insects. Although she goes through the initial head-clutching histrionics, Argento wisely pulls back from the cliche “angry school girl psychic attack” a la Carrie. Instead, Jennifer backs away calmly. She smiles, and suddenly a simple white light illuminates her face as a supernatural wind blows back her hair and she says simply, politely, “I love you. I love you all.” The other students are confounded by her bizarre reaction to their torture, not to mention the fact that there’s wind blowing through the inside of the school all of a sudden. Their confusion soon turns to shock and terrified comprehension as they realize that she’s not talking to them. She’s talking to the thousands upon thousands of flies that she summons. In a great cloud, they swarm around and envelope the school. But she never sends them to attack. They’re only present as a show of her power while Goblin’s haunting theme highlights the supernatural insect shenanigans. Description can’t really communicate the bizarre beauty of the scene.
Characters in Italian horror films are often flat and single-dimensional — if they’re even that thick. Certainly Argento’s film is populated by the stock characters. There’s the gruff cop, the creepy demanding head mistress, and an assembly of no-name schoolgirls who are only there to stick out their tongues and taunt our heroine. At the same time, however, the development of Jennifer and McGregor is engaging. Jennifer Connelly was an acting novice at the time, and a good many of her lines are delivered with a degree of flat but natural awkwardness. Luckily, her character is so strange that the delivery doesn’t really detract. In fact, it enhances the weirdness. Had she had more experience, she might have gone over the top and been less interesting. As is, she is reserved, aloof, and exactly as one would need to be for such a character. At the same time, the young actress has an undeniable charm and charisma that draws you in. In many ways, her off-kilter performance mirrors the off-kilter appeal of the film itself.
Pleasance is, of course, a master of the genre, and he is as good here as he’s ever been. The conversations between he and Jennifer are good, and weirdly enough, the interaction between he and his chimp are just as touching. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes comes when McGregor becomes the inevitable target of the killer and his chimpanzee sidekick, locked outside but witness to the danger McGregor is in, howls desperately as it struggles to break into the house and come to the rescue. It’s a ludicrous scene on the surface that is, within the supernatural universe of Phenomena, oddly tear-jerking. The chimp puts in a heck of a performance. Rounding out the main cast is Argento regular Daria Nicolodi as the only understanding face in the whole school. As the film enters its final act, she gets to chew some major scenery and deliver one of the film’s darkly humorous moments when Jennifer’s guardian from American runs to her rescue, gun in hand.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Argento film without some brutal special effects and scenes of violence. He certainly doesn’t let us down. From the opening murder to the disgusting pit of corpses to the final razor attack on the killer, and even for the blade piercing the neck and protruding from the mouth (an effect he liked so much he used again to even nastier effect in Opera), Argento and special effects supervisor Sergio Stivaletti (Demons, Dellamorte Dellamore) don’t skimp. Where as goremeister Lucio Fulci often delivered violence and grue so over-the-top as to be cartoonish, Argento restrains the onslaught just enough to keep things shocking and unnerving. Later in his career, he would give in to the demand for splatter. I always preferred him to be like an American football game: lots of plotting and setting up followed by a few seconds of violent action.
The bugs are a curious aspect of the movie. Like I said, for once they aren’t there just to provide the gross-out factor or menace teenagers in hot rods. Other than a few maggots, the bugs aren’t really that gross. Just flies for the most part, and a bee here or there. They are not products of the atomic age, nor is Jennifer’s ability to communicate with and control them explained away as some mutation from radiation. In fact, it’s not explained at all other than a bit where McGregor reflects on the rather common occurrence of “ESP” — or at least the ability to communicate without visual or audio aids — among insects. Although their involvement in the plot is almost tangential, they do a play a key role in the film’s completely off-its-rocker finale, in which Jennifer discovers the true identity of the killer(s), falls into a pit of gooey corpse muck, is menaced by the killer on a boat, and finally summons the insects to protect her, this time allowing them to do more than just make a show of it. It’s rare in film that the bugs get to save the day, even rarer when the day has to be saved again, but this time by a vengeful razor-wielding chimp. Even with the various hints dropped in this review regarding the nature of the finale, it’s still a serious mind warp.
As gorgeous as the film is, it is not without its flaws. Chief among them are the many contrivances thrown at us to propel things along. It’s convenient, for instance, that the girl with the psychic link to bugs rolls down a hill and wanders in her sleep to the home of a determined entomologist who has a grudge against the local serial killer. But then, maybe it was her psychic ability drawing her there. It’s also convenient that the chimpanzee, while searching for sustenance in a public park, finds a brand new straight razor just lying in the garbage can. Character stupidity often contributes to some exasperation with the movie as well. In the most obvious scene, Jennifer is trapped in the killer’s home and struggles desperately to fish a telephone out of an adjoining room. Rather than just crawling through the opening at the top of the door, she hangs there and tries to snag the phone with some sort of curtain rod. Who would do that? Just grab the dang phone!
And then there’s the heavy metal. Hey, I like “Flash of the Blade” as much a the next guy, but I don’t play quite as frequently as Phenomena. From time to time it almost works, but at other times it has absolutely no connection to anything going on in the movie. Why would an ambulance crew be blasting Motorhead as they cart away a murder victim? Add to that the lack of any real police presence and a “killer’s identity” bait-and-switch not unlike the one in Deep Red, and there’s certainly enough targets in Phenomena to keep critics of the movie busy.
But none of that really matters to me, because the film takes on a logic all its own. I know that may sound like a weak defense of the film, and I’ll grant you that seeing Phenomena as a great movie relies heavily on your ability to suspend not just your disbelief, but your rational sense of logic as well. I mean, we are dealing with a movie in which a girl can commune with bugs, and a deformed little kid plays a prominent role in the finale. If you go into a plot like that expecting rationality, then you’re lost before you begin. I think movies like Suspiria are more successful among people because it plays one side of the field It’s a supernatural fantasy, so we willingly accept that our expectations for the real world do not apply. Phenomena, on the other hand, complicates matters by being equal parts supernatural fantasy and concrete whodunit. The mix is what keeps a lot of people uneasy about the film. Just as you settle into it being a murder mystery, Jennifer Connelly starts forming psychic links with maggots and summoning great clouds of angry flies to do her bidding.
From its inauspicious role as one of my least favorite of Dario Argento’s earlier films, Phenomena has emerged as one of my very favorites right alongside Suspiria and even inching out Deep Red and Inferno. It asks certain concessions be made on the part of the viewer, but if you are willing to make those, it’s truly a mesmerizingfilm. When I finished watching it for the third time, I was awestruck and more than a bit embarrassed by my previous dismissal of the film and failure to grasp what I was seeing. Every scene is constructed perfectly to pull you in and keep you feeling uneasy. As trite as this may sound, Phenomena exceeds the expectations of what a movie is and becomes a deliriously gorgeous work of art.
Release Year: 1985 | Country: Italy | Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Patrick Bauchau, Donald Pleasence, Fiore Argento, Federica Mastroianni, Fiorenza Tessari, Mario Donatone, Francesca Ottaviani, Michele Soavi, Franco Trevisi | Screenplay: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini | Director: Dario Argento | Cinematographer: Romano Albani | Music: Goblin | Alternate Title: Creepers