"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Italian Horror Blog-a-thon: Phenomena

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies blog run by Kevin J. Olson. Please check out all the fantastic contributions over there.

Some fans of Dario Argento’s films feel that Phenomena (1985) should have been the third film in The Three Mothers trilogy and not the official installment Mother of Tears (2007). Structurally and, at times, visually Phenomena bears a striking resemblance to Suspiria (1977), the first film in the trilogy, in that they have a dark fairy tale vibe and feature young women battling against malevolent forces. Both films also begin with the brutal murder of a beautiful young woman. In Phenomena, a school girl (Fiore Argento, the director’s daughter) in Switzerland just misses her bus and looks for help at a nearby house. Argento cuts repeatedly to someone or something trying to free itself from chains attached to a wall. The killer chases the girl through the woods and then kills her with scissors in a way that evokes the first operatic death in Suspiria.

Inspector Rudolf Geiger (Patrick Bauchau) and his assistant Kurt (Michele Soavi) enlist the help of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) to help them solve a series of murders via a radical theory that involves using insects to tell them the time of death. Meanwhile, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), an American student, attends the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls in Switzerland, chaperoned by Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi). We learn that she has a natural affinity for insects. She’s also a child of divorce who has been dumped there by her globetrotting father, a famous actor, and her estranged mother who lives in India. There is a really nice scene where Jennifer bonds with her roommate Sofie (Federica Mastroianni) as she tells her about how her parents split up. This scene is crucial in that it personalizes the film as we go from an objective third person perspective to the first person, empathizing with this poor girl who has been dumped into a foreign world with no friends or family.

Jennifer experiences eerie nightmares scored to Iron Maiden and is prone to sleepwalking on the ledge of a school building where she witnesses a murder and is eventually hit by a car. Only Argento could get away with orchestrating such an audacious sequence. Much like David Lynch he is able to seamlessly blend the dream world with reality. To make matters worse, Jennifer’s habit of sleepwalking makes her an outcast among her fellow classmates and a guinea pig to her teachers who poke and prod her like a lab rat. She meets McGregor and he helps develop her telepathic power over insects and they team up to stop the serial killer. He is the father figure that she is looking to fill the void left by her absent parent. In a nice bit of casting against type, veteran character actor Donald Pleasence plays a kindly old man, an academic type fascinated with the pursuit of knowledge along with his trusty chimpanzee attendant Inga (Tanga). The professor’s relationship with Jennifer is quite touching even though they make for an unlikely pair of amateur detectives.

With only one film on her resume prior to Phenomena (Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon A Time in America) and a background in modeling, Jennifer Connelly delivers a grounded, naturalistic performance devoid of the acting tics she would develop later on in her career. Under Argento’s expert direction, she creates a fiercely independent girl who also has a vulnerable side as evident in the tour de force scene where her classmates tease and torment Jennifer until she lashes out with her powers and the façade of the school is enveloped by flies while she looks on. Your heart really goes out to her as she’s misunderstood by her teachers and ostracized by her classmates. In addition, she’s learning to use and understand her telepathic powers. It’s a lot for a young girl to deal with and this is all beautifully realized by Connelly who acts very mature and poised for her age.

The origins for Phenomena came from a German news item that Argento discovered about crime investigators studying the behavior of insects in a room where a murder had been committed, leading to clues pertaining to the crime. He was intrigued by this idea and talked to the police who were quite supportive of this technique even though it was mostly theoretical and had only been applied once and not in a serious way. Argento then went to France and met with a famous entomologist who told him about how the world of insects applied to the criminal world. Co-screenwriter Franco Ferrini and Argento came up with the idea not to make a horror film but rather a supernatural thriller with this element introduced via Jennifer’s ability to telepathically control insects.

Argento sent actress Daria Nicolodi to the United States to cast Phenomena but she was met with a lot of rejection because of the subject matter. Argento originally wanted to cast Liv Ullman’s daughter Lynn in the role of Jennifer but when her agent read the screenplay he turned it down because it was a “splatter movie.” Another woman threw the script in Nicolodi’s face telling her, “You can’t torture an adolescent with such violent images.” Argento was taken with Jennifer Connelly’s beauty, in particular her eyes, and Nicolodi organized a meeting between them. She even showed the young actress’ parents a few scenes from Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), which they liked. Nicolodi even became good friends with Connelly and they bonded over dinner. The two became close during filming with Connelly regarding Nicolodi as a kind of second mother.

Like most of Argento’s films, he creates an incredible mood and atmosphere and this is particularly evident in the way cinematographer Romano Albani photographs the forests that feature prominently throughout. For example, the establishing shot of Professor McGregor’s house shows trees blowing ominously in the wind at night – the elements at their most primal. Argento also employs his trademark saturated lighting in a given scene, like bathing Jennifer in cool blue while she dreams. Heavy metal and horror films have been linked together for a long time – both are marginalized genres within their respective mediums, never getting the respect they deserve and never being particularly interested in getting it. So, it makes sense that for Phenomena, Argento uses songs by Iron Maiden and Motorhead along with a creepy electronic score courtesy of Simon Boswell, Claudio Simonetti, the Goblins, and a slumming Bill Wyman.

As is typical with many of Argento’s films, Phenomena builds to an absolute batshit crazy finale as Jennifer confronts the killer along with the help of a straight razor wielding chimpanzee. At times, the film tends to defy logic (like how the chimp obtains said razor) but that was never one of his main concerns. Phenomena follows its own kind logic, which can be maddening sometimes (like the boneheaded choices Jennifer occasionally makes) but one ultimately has to surrender to the fairy tale vibe that Argento creates and enjoy one of the more original Italian horror films to come out of the 1980’s. Much to his chagrin, the film’s title was changed to Creepers in the U.S. by distributor New Line Cinema and almost 30 minutes was cut, including bits of gore and crucial character development. Thankfully, it has been restored in recent years and Argento considers it his most personal and best film to date.


  1. I'll have to watch this one sine I'm a big fan of Suspiria! In fact, this is the only Argento film I've ever seen... I just didn't knew with which other should I get to after... Very good review!

  2. A lot of people seem to look down on this film in the context of Argento's filmography, but it's actually in my top three of Argento's films alongside SUSPIRIA and TENEBRAE. I absolutely love the atmosphere in this film, and it's one of those movies where almost everything falls into place perfectly (for me, anyway). Connelly's performance is a bit corny in this at times, but the fact that she endures all of that abuse in the back end of the film more than makes up for it.

  3. Agree that this one is a bit like Suspiria. It has a girl as the main character, she also attends an all girl school, and it has supernatural elements attached to it.

    I like this film visually, but Im not a big fan of the heavy metal, it just doesnt seem to fit within the beauty of the film, to me it called for an orchestral score of some sort. But whatever, I guess Argento was experimenting with different things.

    I mean if it was a zombie movie or a demon movie, such as Demons which also has a heavy metal soundtrack, it would have fit in perfectly, but this film was too dreamlike, too fairytale like for heavy metal. I know Im not the only one who feels like this about the music. Ultimately, I dont mind it anymore because I like the movie, but it does distract.

  4. Great stuff, J.D.!

    I agree with Aaron...I don't get why this one is so poo-pooed by horror fans. Especially Italian horror fans who should know better that traditional narrative structure always plays second fiddle to style.

    Also, I always liked the razor-wielding chimpanzee at the end of the film. It seems to be that had this movie been made by someone like Fulci, then horror fans would be more accepting of something so ridiculous because Fulci is known for his gonzo images; however, Argento was no stranger to gonzo imagery either. So, again, I don't get the backlash there as if Argento was somehow above something so ridiculous.

    After all, this is the man that gave us the rat scene in INFERNO.

    This review definitely makes me want to watch this again; it's been years since I've last seen it.

  5. Ah, yes, T.F.C. makes a better point than I: I think it was the Heavy Metal usage more than the chimpanzee with a razor. I think this was the first Argento film to use that particular genre of music; however, I don't know that it's that bad when you consider they way he used Heavy Metal in OPERA a couple of years later. Now that took you out of the movie.

    As T.F.C. said, it's more appropriate in things like DEMONS and does feel a bit an odd thing to do in this particular movie, but I still don't remember hating it that much.

  6. Hey kevin, I dont hate Phenomena at all, actually I enjoy it. It's just the music gets in my way every single time I see it. But it's a small hiccup in an otherwise good Argento flick.

    Hey, J.D.: You and your readers are invited to my special Halloween Monster Blog Post on 21 Supernatural Horror Films From Around The World! Four Bloggers have united to bring you 21 choice horror films! Check it out, it turned out very interesting!


  7. YES! One of my absolute favorites, and one of those few chosen flicks that I can watch anytime, anyplace. The soundtrack, the bugs, the chimp, the kindly Donald Pleasence. Thanks for another great write-up!

  8. Michaël Parent:

    Yes! If you dig SUSPIRIA you should love this one also. Argento's early work is pretty amazing cross the board. I do like some of his more recent stuff - MOTHER OF TEARS for example - but it doesn't hold a candle to his vintage works.


    I agree! This is definitely one of my top fave Argento films along with SUSPIRIA and his debut film, BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. I was surprised to find out that PHENOMENA was so poorly regarded, even among Argento fans! I also dig the atmosphere of this film and don't mind Connelly in it. She's pretty good, esp. when you consider that this was her second film! Not bad.

    The Film Connoisseur:

    Interesting what you said about the use of heavy metal music. It actually doesn't bother me at all. Maybe because the use of the heavy music of the Goblins in SUSPIRIA kinda prepared me for what Argento does in PHENOMENA. I can see how it might seem jarring for some but I kinda like how it is used.

    However, you do make a good point about how it kinda takes you out of the fairy tale vibe that Argento is obviously going for - it certainly is an odd choice and maybe he used it to signify that he was going for a darker fairy tale thing.

    Kevin J. Olson:

    Thanks, my friend! I agree with you and Aaron that it is baffling that PHENOMENA gets so heavily criticized by genre fans.

    I love the razor-wielding chimp as well! In so many horror films animals are killed off so it is great to see them finally gettin' some payback! got to give Argento props for that.

    I just wanted to congratulate you for another awesome Italian horror film blogathon. You had some great contributions and I really enjoyed your posts. Can't wait for next year.

    The Film Connoisseur:

    I really enjoyed your Halloween Monster Blog Post. what a great idea! Thanks for the heads up on that.

    Sean Gill:

    I agree! I was late tracking this one down but fell absolutely in love it and now it's my second fave Argento film after SUSPIRIA. Thanks for stopping by, my friend.

  9. Love Phenomena, and it's certainly in my top 6 Dario. For years, I'd only been privy to the Creepers truncated cut, but was lucky enough to catch the full version in London as part of an Argento retrospective, where Simon Boswell turned up to introduce the screening. Excellent review, JD. I may swing for the Arrow Blu, despite criticism of the transfer.

    1. Nice! I heard Synapse is releasing all three versions of the film on Blu in the near future. That should be pretty sweet.

  10. I enjoy reading your reviews so much, Mr. Lafrance... I have even greater appreciation for them when they are about the genre that is my lifeblood, Horror! Argento is such a strange creature (thus a perfect fit for the genre he prefers)—he is applauded for SUSPIRIA, yet shit-canned for, well, we'll just say a few others. People need to open their minds up regarding his work and stop being such sticks in the mud, stop being so rigid about what it means to be a truly fantastic film. Not everything has to be Welles and Tarkovsky.

    1. Thanks you for the kind words! Yeah, Argento does tend to get pooped on and his more recent output has been spotty but I did enjoy MOTHER OF TEARS.

  11. Great movie review.. I love a good scare whatever the country it came.