You know you’re in for a wild time when a scalpel-wielding chimp isn’t the maddest part of a film. With Phenomena, Dario Argento also plunges us into a grotesque giallo pool of decomposing, maggot-ridden bodies, telepathic insects and horrifically deformed children. He coats his film in a slime so hideous that, for a spell, the primate with the blade is one of the most mundane things about it.
Made in 1985, at the later stage of the director’s golden period, after the likes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Deep Red (1975), and Suspiria (1977), Phenomena is Argento’s most repulsive take on the subgenre that he helped to make famous.
Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a popular film-star, is sent to a boarding school in Switzerland where, while sleepwalking around the grounds, she witnesses a violent murder. In typical Argento fashion, the victim’s head smashes violently through a window before being impaled by the murderer’s knife, the blade exiting through her screaming mouth.
This and the other murders in Phenomena are typical giallo. The one that Jennifer witnesses and the one that prologues the film are striking for their similarities, but by this stage in Argento’s career both are conventional enough to lose some of their impact. Instead, it’s the frequent closeups of decaying skulls and maggot-infested corpses that horrify, or the more sadistic imagery, such as the moment when Inspector Geiger (Patrick Bachau) breaks his own thumb to escape the cuffs the killer has placed him in.
Phenomena is afflicted with a Cronenbergian type of horror and, unlike Deep Red and its antecedents, the blood doesn’t flow for long before it congeals into a sticky black mucus.
Jennifer’s affinity with insects adds another convolution to a story that has already proved itself to be Argento’s most eccentric. After another sleepwalking episode, Jennifer ends up at the house of an entomologist, Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance). He takes a liking to her, as do the insects which inhabit the display cases around his home. ‘I can’t explain it,’ the Professor says after seeing the reaction Jennifer provokes in his subjects, suggesting that their attraction to her is psychically or supernaturally aligned. This eventually leads to the formation of one of the most unlikely detective duos in cinematic history, as Jennifer teams up with a Great Sarcophagus fly to find the murderer.
If this all sounds a bit ridiculous, it’s because it is, and it all builds to a climax that is unfathomably outrageous, where all the film’s eccentricities converge into one spectacular, gruesome finale. Dario Argento claims that of all the films he made, Phenomena is one of his favourites. There is certainly a sense of a film-maker trying to find different, creative ways to frame his stories, but behind the maggots and the gore they feast upon hides a film that at its core is a fairly typical giallo.
Even the soundtrack takes peculiar turns. Frequent Argento collaborators Goblin provide the bulk of the original score, but in this case their music is accompanied by songs from metal groups like Iron Maiden and Motorhead. On face value, the association makes sense; album titles like ‘The Number of the Beast’ and ‘Fear of the Dark’ sit well with a film (and a genre) similarly aligned with the macabre and the occult.
The problem is that these songs kick in at entirely inappropriate moments. At one point, Jennifer tries to escape a locked room, where at any moment her captor could return. Rather than utilizing one of Goblin’s more unsettling tracks to build the tension, Iron Maiden’s ‘Flash of the Blade’ gallops over the soundtrack. It might get the pulse racing, but not for the same reasons as the scene it is set to. It doesn’t have nearly the finesse that we’ve come to expect from Dario Argento.
Even without the heavy metal influence, the soundtrack is one of the more unforgettable that Goblin have provided the director. The same can be said of the film in general, which forgoes the carefully orchestrated scares of Suspiria and the unbelievable creepiness of Deep Red to do little more than try and shock its audience. As a result, it’s the oddities that are memorable. The dread doesn’t linger, but dissipates quickly and is soon forgotten.
It’s perhaps for reasons like these that Phenomena was so butchered by editors upon its initial release. Three versions of the film exist: a 116-minute original Italian release; a 110-minute international version, the cuts to which were mainly superficial; and a more comprehensive, 86-minute edit for US audiences, which was re-titled Creepers, so extensive were the changes made to the film.
Choosing a definitive version of the film has proved challenging for critics. Some consider the original Italian release too bulky and the 110-minute cut more efficient. The two versions are so alike, however, that the casual viewer would struggle to spot the differences. The Creepers cut, on the other hand, is a complete change. Whole dialogue sequences were cut and scenes moved around to help the plot progress more swiftly. All the weirdness of the film is emphasised in this version, as little time is given to building tension or filling out Jennifer’s character as fully.
Phenomena is a curiosity, but nothing more, a freak-show in a circus filled with horror houses. It is undoubtedly one of Argento’s most memorable works, but not necessarily for all the right reasons. It helped launch a new talent in Jennifer Connelly, who would go on the following year to star in the film that defined her early career, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986). The characters she plays in Phenomena and Labyrinth are notably similar, right down to the flowing white clothes they both favour. In many ways, the two films are not that dissimilar; both delight in the grotesque and both take place in a world slightly removed from our own.
Country: Italy Language: English, Italian, German, Danish Year: 1985 Director: Dario Argento Writers: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasance, Daria Nicolodi Runtime: 116 minutes (Italian version)