Phenomena: Bug-eyed

Phenomena directed by Dario Argento science fiction film reviewsPhenomena directed by Dario Argento

Not to be confused with the 1996 John Travolta movie Phenomenon, Dario Argento’s Phenomena was released 11 years earlier, in January 1985. The film comes freighted with a mixed reputation — some seem to feel it is the Italian director’s worst, while others opine that it is his last great effort — although Argento himself has declared it to be his favorite film amongst his 19 to date; indeed, he has called Phenomena, his ninth picture as a director, “my most personal film.” Up until recently, this viewer had never seen the work in question before, but since I had previously loved the three Argento films that preceded it — 1977’s classic Suspiria, 1980’s mind-bending Inferno and 1982’s stomach-churning giallo Tenebre — as well as the picture that followed, the remarkable Opera (1987), I had a feeling that Phenomena would turn out alright… for me, anyway. And happily, such is indeed the case. A wild and at times over-the-top amalgam of traditional giallo and supernatural fare, Phenomena must surely represent another colorful and distinctive feather in Argento’s already crowded cap.

As in Suspiria, here, a young American girl goes to a boarding school in Europe and encounters murderous evil. In the earlier film, Jessica Harper had attended a ballet academy in Germany that turned out to be a home base for witches. In the 1985 outing, pretty Jennifer Connelly plays Jennifer Corvino (the similarity in names, the co-producer/co-writer/director would later reveal, was deliberate, so that the 14-year-old actress could more easily identify with her character), the daughter of an American movie star who goes to Switzerland to attend an all-girls school. It is the “Richard Wagner International School for Girls,” located in a part of the country known as the Swiss Transylvania, where the wind blowing down from the Alps is said to induce madness. And sure enough, a bayonet-wielding killer IS indeed in the process of slaying the young ladies of the area, in seeming fulfillment of the legend. Jennifer, unfortunately, finds it hard to fit in with the other girls, after several sleepwalking episodes, and her ability to telepathically communicate with insects (!), brand her as an oddball. After her only friend at the school is brutally slain, Jennifer takes the advice of the local, wheelchair-confined entomologist, John McGregor (Donald Pleasence, underplaying nicely, for a change), who lives nearby with his chimpanzee assistant, Inga. With the help of the corpse-seeking Great Sarcophagus fly, Jennifer hunts for the location of the first of the area slayings. But she is going to need a LOT more help than just her teensy buddy, as she draws ever closer to the bizarro truth…

The excellent reference book DVD Delirium has called Phenomena “Argento’s wildest and woolliest shocker,” going on to say that the film is “quite entertaining and boasts some of Argento’s most delicious shocks,” and I could not agree more. Besides its wackadoodle plot, the picture boasts such bits of strangeness as an off-screen narrator who gives us a five-second voice-over around 15 minutes in and is never heard from again, as well as a truly startling POV shot taken from a ladybug’s multifaceted eyes! The gorehounds in the audience should surely appreciate such assorted bits of mayhem and grossness as a young girl (played by the director’s daughter, Fiore Argento) getting scissored through the hand and stomach and later having her head shatter a glass window (that head-through-glass bit had also been prominently featured in Suspiria); the sight of a severed head crawling with maggots; numerous bayonetings; what I can only describe as a charnel cesspool; and really, the entire last 20 minutes of the movie. This concluding section — about which the less revealed, the better, I suppose — grows increasingly loopy to the point that it is just completely bonkers; a genuine tour de force of horror for director Argento.

Kudos must go to young Jennifer Connelly, here in her second film (she had previously appeared in a bit part in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America one year earlier), who is not only a lovely screen presence, but gives an intelligent, ingratiating performance in her first leading role, as well. Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s sometimes partner, likewise gives a very spirited portrayal. Other things to admire here are the marvelous cinematography of Romano Albani (who had earlier lensed Inferno), the makeup FX of Sergio Stivaletti (especially on the character known as Patua), the insect microphotography of Ferdinando Armati, and still another awesome soundtrack for an Argento film, this one boasting the contributions of Bill Wyman, Motorhead, Goblin, Iron Maiden and others. The film is moody and atmospheric, almost feels like a fairy tale at times (such as when a glowing firefly leads Jennifer to a nasty discovery), is consistently surprising and, as previously mentioned, occasionally fairly shocking. Its outlandish plot does not answer all the viewer’s questions (for example, WHY does Jennifer sleepwalk?), but a repeat viewing will surely clear up most of those conundrums, as it did for this viewer. In all, a most impressive piece of work from Mr. Argento.

Further good news regarding Phenomena is the fact that it can be seen today on a great-looking Anchor Bay DVD that restores 28 minutes’ worth of footage that had been deleted when the film first premiered in the U.S. in August ’85. That version, known as Creepers, ran only 82 minutes long. The full-length 110-minute version here may perhaps change the minds of those who have only seen the butchered version and cite it as being Argento’s worst. Like the aforementioned ladybug, they just might find their eyes, uh, bugging out…

Brace yourself for an all-new look at one of the most wildly original films ever from writer/director Dario Argento, an insane epic of terror, wonder, and jaw-dropping carnage. Jennifer Connelly stars as an outcast student at a Swiss boarding school who discovers both her telepathic power to control insects and the gore-soaked trail of a razor-wielding killer. Can a kindly professor (Donald Pleasence of HALLOWEEN) now harness her gift to stop the bloodbath of a psychopath? Daria Nicolodi (TENEBRE), Dalila DiLazzaro (FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN) and Fiore Argento (DEMONS) co-star along with a pounding soundtrack by Goblin, Bill Wyman, Iron Maiden and Motörhead in the shocker that remains a favorite of Argento fans as well as one of the most brutally original horror thrillers of the 80s.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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7 comments

  1. “Look, honey, here’s a nice boarding school in Switzerland to send baby Jennifer off to! Features include Wagnerian operas played daily, and a wind off the Alps that turns people into homicidal maniacs! What do you think?”

    “Why, I think it sounds perfect, darling! Let me see that brochure…”

  2. I think Argento had an affinity for the name Jennifer — one of the two episodes he directed for the Masters of Horror TV series was named “Jenifer.” (And it is as disturbing and unsettling as you might expect!)

    • sandy ferber /

      I’d love to see those, Jana! I will make a mental note. Thanx!

  3. Great post! Have nice day ! :) ymnld

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